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.

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

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.”

Smiling?!

Here’s what happens at our house: We’ll hear our toddler either whimper or flat-out scream at the top of his lungs when he wakes up. 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.

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

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