Crying is a perfectly normal phenomenon. People cry for a variety of reasons (for example, stress, physical pain, or challenging emotions) and in a variety of situations (like after a frustrating conversation or while watching a sad movie).
But can you cry in your sleep?
“Yes, it is possible to cry in your sleep,” says Chester Wu, MD, who is double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and acts as medical reviewer for Rise Science.“This phenomenon can be observed across age groups, from infants to adults.”
But why, exactly, does crying in your sleep happen? And what can you do about it?
Can you cry in your sleep?
As mentioned, the answer to the question of “can you cry in your sleep” is yes. But why? There are multiple reasons why a person might cry in their sleep—and those reasons vary by age.
“Babies…often cry if hungry, overtired, or from separation anxiety,” says Valerie Cacho, MD, integrative sleep physician and CEO of women’s sleep resource Sleephoria.
Interestingly, a mother’s mental health may also play a role in if and how often their babies cry—including in their sleep. “The emotional states of mothers, such as anxiety and depression, are also found to influence infant crying behaviors, which may continue into sleep.”
Adults cry in their sleep for different reasons. For adults, “crying during sleep can be caused by dreams, sleep disorders or parasomnias, or emotional and psychological factors,” says Wu.
Some common reasons why adults cry in their sleep include:
Night terrors are a type of parasomnia (or sleep disorder) during which people look and act fearful—for example, by screaming, crying, or thrashing. While a person having a night terror might have their eyes open, they’re not fully awake; the terror is happening while they’re still asleep.
Night terrors are most common in children. “Night terrors or sleep terrors are a fairly common childhood phenomenon, affecting roughly half of children, and lasting typically up until age 13,” says Wu.
But night terrors can happen into adulthood—and, if they do, they can definitely contribute to crying in your sleep. “Night terrors can cause crying during sleep across different age groups,” says Wu.
Prone to bad dreams? Depending on the content, your nightmares might be what’s driving those sleep tears. “Nightmares can lead to a strong emotional reaction which can result in crying,” says Cacho.
One of the most common reasons why people cry in their sleep is also one of the most common reasons why people cry in general—emotions.
“Various emotional and psychological states, from stress to depression, can influence the occurrence of crying during sleep,” says Wu.
Emotions can make you cry in your sleep in a variety of ways, including:
- Negative emotional responses. If you have an emotional response you find challenging or negative, then it could lead to you crying in your sleep. (For example, if you had a bad day at work, then the stress and frustration you feel could lead to crying in the middle of the night.)
- Mental health diagnosis. More ongoing mental health problems, like depression or anxiety, can also lead to crying in your sleep.
- Unprocessed emotions. You may not feel emotional when you go to sleep, but your brain might still be working through unprocessed emotions (for example, grief or sadness), which could make you cry in your sleep—even if you’re not 100% sure what you’re crying about.
REM behavior disorder
“REM behavior disorder [also known as REM sleep behavior disorder or RBD] is a medical sleep condition where people can act out their dreams,” says Cacho—and while it’s not super common, it could cause crying in your sleep.
How? “Typically during REM your body is paralyzed,” says Cacho. But with RBD, “people don’t have this paralyzation,” Cacho says.
As such, people with RBD may act out their dreams in a variety of ways, including screaming, kicking, punching, or—you guessed it—crying.
How to stop crying in your sleep
Do you cry in your sleep—and would you like to stop? Here are some tips to help you nix those nighttime tears:
Get better sleep
“Sleep influences our capacity to regulate negative emotions and stress, including the management of crying,” says Wu.
In other words, when you’re not getting enough high-quality sleep, you’re more likely to cry in the face of challenging emotions or experiences (like stress, frustration, or overwhelm), including in the middle of the night.
And then that sleep crying impacts your ability to get high-quality rest—and you find yourself in a vicious cycle.
So, if you find yourself crying in your sleep, then one way to stop is to make sleep a top priority in your wellness routine.
“Establishing a consistent bedtime routine to create a sense of security and predictability and creating a comfortable sleep environment, free of stressors and distractions, can help you do that,” says Wu.
As mentioned, many people cry in their sleep because of challenging emotions and/or mental health issues, like overwhelm, anxiety, or depression.
If that rings true for you, then the key to stopping those nighttime tears might be “address[ing] any underlying emotional or psychological issues through counseling or therapy,” says Wu.
Working with a therapist or other mental health professional can help you better understand, manage, and process your emotions—which, in turn, can then prevent those emotions from making you cry in the middle of the night.
Be mindful of pre-bedtime behavior
If you’re prone to sleep crying, then it’s also important to be mindful of what you’re doing right before bed—and making sure none of your pre-bedtime activities could be causing your tears.
“Consider what you are doing before going to bed,” says Cacho. “If you are watching a sad and emotional movie or reading a book that makes you feel like crying, then these feelings may linger in your brain—and could potentially lead to crying at night.”
If you want to keep sleep crying to a minimum, then avoid anything that may bring up strong and/or negative emotions before bed (for example, watching a sad movie or having a challenging conversation with your spouse).
Instead, focus on relaxing and getting yourself into a good mood before you go to sleep (for example, by flipping on your favorite sitcom episode or doing some pre-bedtime yoga and relaxation exercises.
Seek medical help if necessary
In most cases, occasionally crying in your sleep is no cause for alarm. But if it’s beginning to impact your quality of life, then it may be time to seek medical help.
“You should seek medical attention if crying during sleep is persistent, affects your daytime functioning, or is accompanied by other symptoms of emotional or psychological distress,” says Wu.
You should also seek medical help if you suspect your sleep crying is a symptom of a larger sleep disorder (like RBD).
And if you share a bed, then remember—you’re not the only person your sleep crying affects. So, you should consider getting professional help “if the sleep crying…is disruptive to your bed partner,” says Cacho.
What does it mean if you cry in your sleep?
Crying in your sleep can mean a variety of things; for example, you could be crying in response to a nightmare or because you were feeling sad before you went to bed. In some cases, sleep crying can be a sign of a sleep disorder like REM behavior disorder.
What does it mean when you cry in your dreams?
Crying in your dreams can happen for several different reasons, like unprocessed emotions or having an upsetting dream or nightmare.
What is sleep dread—and how do you treat it? Check out our guide to somniphobia to learn how to navigate this condition.