When Your Toddler Always Wakes Up Crying: Useful Techniques to Help Your Child Wake Up Happy

Cranky After Nap: Useful Techniques to Help Your Child Wake Up Happy

I love when my toddler naps: we get a break, he’s rested, and there’s no pressure to bump up his bedtime. But the moment right after a nap? That can be a challenge. Because it seems our toddler always wakes up crying after a nap.

I was talking to a friend who has a son around the same age as mine. “I love when Noah wakes up from a nap,” she began. “I’ll hear him talking or singing right after he wakes up, so that when I walk in I’ll find him sitting up and smiling at me.”


Here’s what happens at our house: Our toddler wakes up screaming. We rush in with his milk in hand, and that will placate him for maaaaybe the thirty seconds it takes him to down the whole thing. He’ll either demand more or resume crying and complaining. Sometimes he’ll say he wants to go back to sleep but protests when we make arrangements for him to do so.

The crazy thing is he doesn’t wake up cranky in the mornings. He wakes up like my friend’s son—talking, singing and yes, smiling. Apparently grouchiness is reserved for mid-day naps. I don’t blame him—I tend to feel out of sorts when I wake up from a nap and assume he feels the same.

Either way, my husband and I have gotten better with helping our little guy wake up happier—and less cranky—after his naps:

How to help your child wake up happier from naps:

  • Have milk and snacks ready. Do you give your child milk and snacks after her naps? Have them ready while she sleeps. When she wakes up hungry, the last thing you need is to scramble around the kitchen filling her cup of milk and dicing her fruit.
  • Give a snack before he naps. For some—picky eaters especially—waking up from a nap on an empty stomach sends them straight into a bad mood. Maybe that has to do with low sugar levels or their appetites gnawing at them. Try giving your child a light snack before napping to stave off any hunger pangs that might come up while he sleeps.
  • Gradually transition your child’s room. In the past, we would walk into his bedroom and begin pulling the curtains back and turning the fan off. It’s easy to do this when we’ve been sitting in the living room wide awake in bright sunlight, talking and coherent. Napping kids, not so much. They need more time to transition to awake time.
  • Along the same lines, keep conversation to a minimum. Not only would we pull the curtains back, we would start talking to him right away, animatedly and everything. Again, with empathy, we could see that he wasn’t ready to jump in on the conversation, answer questions or even hear our voices just yet.
  • Give him time to wake up before rushing to the room. Another mistake we did was rushing to our toddler the minute we heard even the slightest rustle or whimper from his room. I found that when we gave him a few minutes or even seconds to compose himself and realize that he’s awake, he’s in a much better mood when we walk in. Of course if he wakes up hysterical as if he were frightened from a dream, then we rush in, but for softer sounds, we give him a few moments to wake up.

  • Offer a comfort item. Our little guy sleeps with his lovey (update: We’ve even given his baby brothers their own loveys as well). We’ve also given him a favorite toy or book that he can play with or read on his bed.
  • Read books in bed. Sometimes all my son needed was a simple ritual of reading books, hearing our soft voices and looking at pictures. Compile a few favorites and have them handy for his after-nap wake up. If not books, try other rituals like singing songs or massaging.
  • Soothe. When all else fails, just be there for your little one. Assuming she’s not pushing you away or making unrealistic demands (a potential tantrum trigger), sometimes all she needs is a good rub on her back or to sit on your lap.
  • Expect the inevitable. If your child was grouchy before the nap, he’s likely to be grouchy after. Since my toddler isn’t too thrilled at stopping his midday activities to go to sleep (he’s probably thinking, “Nap? Booooring!”), he tends to fuss and cry even before the nap. When this happens, almost always does he wake up just as cranky, if not more. I’ve learned to accept this fact because I know he’ll get over it in time, and the sleep he gets from napping is necessary despite the bad mood.
  • Stay calm. Hearing your child wailing and screaming doesn’t make for the best of moods, but watch your reaction because he’ll mirror it. Do your best to keep your frustration to a minimum, giving yourself a pep talk beforehand if need be (“This isn’t his fault. I get cranky after naps too. He’ll calm down soon.”). Your own bad mood could send his spiraling even further, causing an endless back-and-forth cycle than if you had kept your temper in check.
  • Remember this happens to the best of us. Like I mentioned, I’m not chipper the minute I wake up from a nap. Since naps tend to be short, we don’t get the full deep sleep cycle that night time affords. Plus, nearly everyone has felt disoriented after waking up from a nap. When you’re ready to lose your cool, put yourself in your child’s shoes and remember it’s normal to wake up cranky sometimes.

As with anything with kids, nothing is ever guaranteed. Just today, we spent 45 minutes consoling a cranky toddler after a long nap. It was just one of those days. But with comfort, more subdued transition and a ton of empathy, we can help our babies and toddlers wakes up happier and less cranky after a nap—and keep ourselves a bit more sane.

Want to read more? Check out this related post:

Your turn: Try one or more of the tips above. What improvements have you noticed?

Disclosure: Amazon links are my affiliate links. Thank you for your support!


Nina is a working mom to three boys—a five-year-old and toddler twins. She blogs about parenting at Sleeping Should Be Easy, where she writes everything she's learning about being mom and all its joys and challenges. She also covers topics like how kids learn and play, family life, being a working mom and life with twins. Download her free ebook, "Time Management Strategies for the Overwhelmed Mom" for more tips.


    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    CommentLuv badge

  1. says

    Thank you for writing this blog. I relate to everything you write and appreciate that you put so much effort and time into a new article everyday! You’re amazing to say the least! Today’s article was right on yhe mark as our 19 month old sometimes does this, in fact he did today, woke up with big crocodile tears. My husband stayed with him on the chair in his room and just rubbed his back while our little man just lay on his chest. Afterwards he wanted to lie in the lounge with a blanket for 20mins… Go figure some days they just love to chillax :)

    • says

      Thanks, Jo! Comments like yours make my day. I appreciate you reading along; it makes the effort into producing this blog all the more worth while.

  2. Steph says

    Our daughter is unpredictable after naps. Sometimes she wakes up ready to conquer the world and other times she wakes up terribly grumpy. For a while giving her a smoothie when she woke up was a great transition. But she got tired of those I guess and we were back to the drawing board. She seems to like if we have something a little more planned out in the afternoon.

    • says

      Steph, great suggestion on having something planned. I wonder if that would entice my kiddo to be a bit more chipper if he has something fun to look forward to. I’ll try that the next time he wakes up cranky.

  3. says

    I thought only my kid was grumpy after a nap. What a revelation. I pretty much do some of the things you’ve mentioned, but most of the time, if she decides to be grumpy, then she be grumpy and there’s no stopping her until she suddenly switches gears to happy kid again (which is the weirdest transition ever — one second grumpy, another second giggling? crazy kid). : )

  4. says

    Love your tips! Sometimes a toddler is cranky when he wakes up in the middle of a sleep cycle…especially if it has only been a 30 to 45 minute nap. If that is the case, try comforting back to sleep. Toddlers have a difficult time transitioning in any activity, from play to rest, from rest to play, from sleep to awake and from awake to sleep! Part of being 2!!

    • says

      I notice that mine can wake up prematurely and isn’t ready to be up yet. While we’ve never been successful at getting him back to sleep, simply leaving the room as is has helped a ton! He’ll usually just lay in bed semi awake and that has been enough to temper his grouchiness. Thanks for adding this tip!

  5. says

    Since my son is still nursing that’s how he transitions to wakefulness morning or afternoon. It works for us and I don’t have to deal with any wake-up grumpiness, but if I have a second child I don’t imagine I’ll have 20 to 45 minutes to quietly nurse him or her awake every time while needing to take care of a very active Eli as well. Eli definitely has his share of luxuries being the first born!

  6. Kerry @ Made For Real says

    Sometimes just holding him and saying nothing helps. Usually older siblings help with distraction til he’s ready to move on.
    (thanks for your sweet email, btw) :)

  7. says

    Baguette has never been a good napper. For a while, the only place she would nap at home was on the sofa bed in the living room. But she often woke up cranky and needing to be held, and then she’d drift in and out of cranky consciousness for the better part of another hour.

    Then we started putting her in our bed to nap. It’s darker and quieter there, and while she may whimper when she turns over, she puts herself back to sleep and has been waking up happier.

      • says

        The thing that was tricky was that in the past, putting her on our bed would ensure that she’d wake up, which was one of the reasons we’d been using the sofa bed. It didn’t work, and now it does. I can’t tell you what will work six weeks or six months from now.

  8. says

    my son never had issues with cranky-waking but my twins did! I like all your advice but I think it’s worth a try just to let him be for a while. I was running in to the twins as soon as they started whimpering because I didn’t want one to wake the other. I found that they ended up having more trouble transitioning than when I just left them alone! In the mornings one wakes usually 30 mintues before her sister and if I go and get her she’s a cranker-puss but if I leave her she might cry for a minute (usually less if at all) and then she’ll lay in her crib and play or sing. And (bonus) she doesn’t wake her sister up because they’re both used to the dynamic after being together for almost 2 years!

  9. says

    A great post as always! Maybe I am lucky (or just lazy!) but I made a rule ages ago, that I will not go into his room until I can hear him babbling away on the monitor. I think when he was younger, and would cry during a nap, I would rush in and try to comfort him, which usually just woke him up and made him even grumpier. I now will wait and he either stops crying and falls back asleep or starts playing in his crib. Then I know it’s safe to go in! :)

  10. says

    I am so lucky that Oster is one of those kids who loves waking up from a nap. He sits or stands up in his crib waiting for someone to come and get him. When my husband or I arrive, Oster is grinning from ear to ear waiting for us to pick him up. Sometimes he will want to get on the floor to play right away and other times he points to his door because he wants to go downstairs to see the dogs.

    His room is pitch black (minus the little sunlight peaking through his blinds and curtains), we have a fan running on low speed and we put on white noise to drown out the sounds my loud pups make while he’s sleeping. I hope he continues this happiness.

  11. says

    Livi just recently started to do this, no matter how long she napped. It used to be that she was up and running the second she woke up. But lately she wants to be held for at least 20 minutes before she is ready for the afternoon.
    Great tips, thanks for sharing.

  12. says

    I needed this post. My son just about always wakes up cranky. The milk suggestion is the best – it’s about the only thing that seems to keep Lane from jumping from crankiness to full-on hysterics. I’ve noticed with my son, he calms down faster if I hold him and take a brief walk outside. He gets to be close to me and also feel the wind and sun on his cheeks, which seems to distract him from his irritability. It’s not always convenient, but it definitely helps!

    • says

      It’s so weird because my twin toddlers do amazingly well for naps. They’re like my friend’s son in the example above, where they’ll either just hang out in their beds when they wake up, or they’ll just talk or sing.

  13. says

    Excellent points about not immediately making the room bright and starting to talk. I’m married to someone who doesn’t talk for a good hour after he’s woken up:) But seriously, it does take a bit to sort of return into the world, especially if you’ve been in a deep sleep, which happens with naps (if you are lucky!)
    Seana Turner recently posted..CirculationMy Profile

    • says

      Totally, Seana. And it’s an honest mistake, especially since we’ve been out in the bright rooms and awake the whole time, while they’re still groggy and waking up.