Why Do I Cry in My Sleep?

person sad in bed

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Crying in your sleep can happen to babies, children, adults, and the elderly. It can feel upsetting to wake up with tears in your eyes. This article discusses what causes people to cry in their sleep and when to seek medical help.

What Causes People to Cry in Their Sleep?

Getting a baby to sleep through the night is probably the number one thing most new parents hope for. Babies tend to cry in their sleep because they are not used to transitioning from one stage of sleep to the next. However, as babies grow and develop, they wake up less often, which allows their parents to get some decent shut-eye.

Adults who are emotionally drained, suffer from mental health conditions, or have been through a recent traumatic experience can shed tears while sleeping and upon waking.

For the elderly, physical changes, dementia symptoms, dealing with mental and emotional aspects of aging, and the stress of life transitions can cause crying during the sleep cycle.

Below are some possible reasons why crying in sleep occurs.

Sleep Stage Transitions

When a baby is born, they need time to adjust to their new sleep cycles. There are six stages of sleep. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is one of these stages. It is also referred to as light sleep. Babies spend more time during REM sleep than adults. 

Babies cry in their sleep because they are not used to transitioning from deep sleep to light sleep. The transition can be upsetting for them, causing them to wake up crying; however, sometimes they’ll settle down and continue sleeping.

Talk to your pediatrician if your baby is waking up crying more often than usual or incessantly for long periods of time. 

Night Terrors

Night terrors are a parasomnia that you can’t remember when you become awake. Children experience these more often than adults.

Night terrors occur most frequently between the ages of 3 and 7. It is estimated that 30% of male and female children have night terrors. The length of a night terror can take between a few seconds to a few minutes.

These can involve moving violently around in bed, screaming, and/or sleep-walking and can cause crying in sleep and upon waking. Around the age of 10, the frequency of night terrors decreases significantly.

Nightmares

What is worse than a bad dream? A nightmare. You probably remember having more nightmares as a child than as an adult. However, anyone at my age can experience them. Waking up from a nightmare can leave you feeling terrified, upset, shaken, and uneasy.

Sometimes, a nightmare can be so intense that it causes you to wake up crying. It’s impossible to completely prevent frightening dreams from invading your sleep. 

Although scientists aren’t fully sure why people have nightmares, they believe they are related to how we process difficult emotions and stress, manage adverse situations and deal with anxious feelings about upcoming events.

Suppressed Emotion or Grief

Everyone grieves differently when they suffer a tragic loss or face a traumatic event. Some people are able to express their emotions easily, seek help without many barriers, and can move forward quickly.

Others may prefer to ignore or suppress their feelings and withdraw from others. Some people tend to behave as though everything is fine. They stay busy and active during the day but at night, difficult emotions bubble up as sleep problems. 

There is no right way to mourn the loss of a loved one and sleep crying may be your body’s natural way of handling that experience. Reaching out to a therapist or mental health professional can help you process those difficult emotions, determine ways to cope, and learn to heal.

Anxiety and Stress

From work issues, marital problems, family troubles, and financial struggles to health concerns, life can be full of stressors. If life has been throwing too many complicated situations your way, your body needs to process these.

Sleep supports the brain’s ability to form emotional memories, develop empathic behavior, and modulate emotional reactivity.

The stress and anxiety you are feeling can manifest as sleep-crying as your brain is working out the overwhelming tension that is going on in your life.

Parasomnia

Parasomnia is a category of sleep disorders that includes sleepwalking and sleeptalking. A person who experiences parasomnia will physically act out their dream in real life which can include crying. If someone in your family has this sleep disorder, you are more likely to have it too.

Parasomnia is exacerbated by stress, anxiety, and major changes to sleep habits. It can put the person’s safety at risk as they are unaware of their physical environment. They may inadvertently harm themselves by eating toxic materials, falling off a ledge or down the stairs, or bumping into objects.

It is important to seek help from a medical professional about treatment options and prevention tips if you frequently experience parasomnia. 

Depression

Depression is a common mood disorder that is associated with ongoing feelings of sadness, despair, and loss of interest in activities that were once pleasurable.

The link between sleep issues and depression is evident. Seventy-five percent of people with depression report having issues falling asleep and staying asleep.

One of the symptoms of depression is having crying spells for no apparent reason.

Morning Depression

Morning depression is also known as diurnal mood variation. It is a form of depression that occurs upon waking up in the morning. Some of the symptoms include sleeping longer than normal, feeling frustrated or cranky when you wake up, having little energy to start your morning routine, and having a poor outlook for the day. 

The causes of morning depression aren’t clear; however, researchers suggest it is related to issues with your circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle that carries essential functions throughout the day to help you fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning.

Dementia

Dementia is associated with sleep disorders. Researchers suggest that it is potentially due to the dysregulation of their sleep-wake cycles caused by degeneration of the hypothalamus and the brainstem. Those with dementia have reported having trouble falling asleep, napping more during the day, getting more irritable in the evening and waking up frequently through the night.

Changes to Your Medication

If you’ve started a new medication, stopped taking one, or changed dosages, it can cause sleep problems. Drugs that affect the central nervous system can alter your sleep-wake cycle.

Some examples of medications that can cause insomnia include antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and those that are used to treat cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

Be sure to consult with your healthcare provider about the side effects of your medications.

Certain Medical Conditions

Lastly, in some cases, crying in your sleep may not be due to emotional or mental reasons. Rather, the crying may be due to a physical condition that causes watering eyes. Some conditions include allergies, conjunctivitis, or a blocked tear duct. Treating these conditions will prevent tear production while you sleep.

A Word From Verywell

Crying in your sleep once in a while isn’t something to be worried about. Being human means being emotional and tears are a part of processing these emotions.

However, if you’re crying in your sleep frequently or it is disrupting your ability to function properly or preventing you from performing your activities of daily living, it’s important to reach out to your doctor or mental health professional. They can help identify the underlying condition and provide treatment options to improve your sleep and overall well-being.

12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system, leading patient safety incident investigations, quality and systems improvement projects, and change management initiatives within mental health, emergency health services, and women's health. Her expertise in facilitating, storytelling, coaching, and promoting tough and honest conversations provides the foundation for her site, Sum (心,♡) on Sleeve.