Is your toddler inconsolable after nap? If your toddler wakes up crying from nap time, try these quick techniques to help her wake up happy.
I always looked forward to nap times at my house. I got a break from my then-toddler, he felt better rested, and—assuming he fell asleep—I could check off yet another successful nap attempt.
But the moment right after a nap? That was often a challenge. No matter the circumstances or what I did, he’d wake up crying each time.
Him being my first, I figured this was normal. But then I was talking to a friend who had a son the same age as mine. And she admitted, “I love when he wakes up from a nap. I’ll hear him talking or singing right after he wakes up, waiting for me to come get him. When I walk in, I’ll find him sitting and smiling at me.”
The comparison wheels began to turn. I couldn’t recall a single time when my child woke up without not crying, much less smiling or singing. Instead, he’d wake up screaming, almost mad that he had agreed to take a nap and was furious he fell for the trap.
At that point, the only thing that seemed to make him happy was rushing in with a sippy cup of milk. And sure, he’d drink it right away, but within 30 seconds, he’d empty the cup and resume crying. No matter how much milk we gave, it was never enough. Other times, he’d say he wanted to go back to sleep, but would protest when I made arrangements for him to do so.
He seemed to complain just to complain.
To confuse me even more, he’d only wake up cranky from naps. In the mornings, he’d wake up just like my friend’s son—talking, singing, and yes, smiling. But come nap times, he was the complete opposite—irritable and grouchy, refusing to even allow us to help him feel better.
What to do when your toddler wakes up crying from nap
As happy as I was to put him down for a nap, I dreaded the time for him to wake up. I wanted to be patient, but instead I grew exasperated at his refusal to be soothed, and impatient that he wouldn’t just “snap out of it.” I’d lose my temper, then feel even guiltier for doing so.
Something had to change. I couldn’t keep up with his temper or worsening mine. I wasn’t expecting an overnight change, but just tactics that would at least placate and soothe him from being so angry. Here’s what we did:
Set the scene with a good routine
We often hear about “routines” and children, but what exactly is it, and how do you establish one?
Routines are two-part. The first are the events in your child’s day, from eating to naps. The second are the little “rituals” you associate with those events—a tucking in of the blanket or singing a familiar lullaby during bedtime, for instance. These signal that those events are now happening.
When we change their diaper after a snack, they learn that it’s time to head outside for their daily play time at the park. And when we draw the curtains and turn on the white noise machine, they understand that it’s time to sleep.
Structure your days so you’re doing the same things around the same times. You can vary your activities during the awake times, but try to keep nap times consistent.
Let’s say your child naps between 9:30-11am and again at 2-3:30pm every day. Even though his nap schedule is pretty set in stone, you can still vary what you do during the awake time. Monday night mean a midday walk at noon, while Tuesday could be story time at the library.
Routines aren’t meant to restrict your activities so much as provide the boundaries and framework for what you can do around nap times.
Then we have the little rituals that signal the events are happening. Help your child wake up happy from naps by creating rituals to ease him into them. A few ideas include:
- Making the room dark
- Turning on a white noise machine
- Singing lullabies
- Keeping your tone and actions subdued
- Reading familiar bedtime books
You can do the same after he wakes up, such gently pulling the curtains open, singing “wake up” nursery songs or reading cheerful children’s books.
Through these little rituals and routines, you’re creating an environment that will signal the time to nap, and time to wake up. Keep your rituals consistent and predictable so your child associates them with taking a nap and waking up from one.
So, how can you implement a routine so you have structure and flexibility?
Start with the basics, and stick to the same times you do them, such as when your child wakes up, eats his meals, takes a bath, takes a nap and sleeps for the night.
And for each one, implement the same ritual. For instance, for nap times, you might change his diaper, read two books, hand him his special toy, sing a lullaby, turn on the white noise machine and draw the curtains.
Note: Give your child a snack 45 minutes to an hour before nap. For some kids, waking up from a nap on an empty stomach sends them into a foul mood. Maybe that’s due to low sugar levels, or their appetites gnawing at them during sleep. Give your child a light snack before napping to stave off any hunger pangs while he sleeps.
At the same time, don’t give him food immediately before sleeping, as his body then needs some time to digest what he just ate. A full belly might feel uncomfortable especially lying down. And he might need to use the potty, making nap time even more uncomfortable.
Instead, aim for a snack time close enough to nap that he doesn’t wake up hungry, but not too close that he’ll have trouble digesting his food.
Then, plan activities around these “big events.” You might go on outings before he takes his morning nap, or a simple errand after the second one. With your basics in place, your activities can vary so long as you work around them.
A solid routine will help your child take to the events of his day much more than if he doesn’t know what to expect. He can focus on the task at hand—from eating to sleeping to playing—without wondering what will happen next. Because of your consistent routine, he’ll form associations that make it that much easier for him to nap—and wake up—than if he had no routine to rely on.
And routines are important for you! No longer do you have to wonder what to do next, or the little things to do before each sleep time. They’ve become second nature not only to your child but to you as well.
Little rituals dot our whole day, from putting toys away at the end of the day to placing clothes into the hamper before bath times. Even our daily flow has a rhythm that relies on a general structure—a template that we fill in.
Routines can make the difference between a happy child and an angry, over-tired one. When your child knows what to expect, he won’t have to wonder what’s next, or feel upset about waking up.
Gradually transition your child’s room
Think about where you spend your time while your child naps. You might be in the living room watching television, or in the kitchen preparing your next meal. The rooms are brightly lit as you go about, wide awake and coherent.
Meanwhile, your child is napping in a quiet and likely dark room. He’s detached from any sense of time or meaning as he sleeps and dreams. He wakes up out of sorts, perhaps confused by his dreams or even the time of day it is.
When you put situations the two side by side, both are so opposite—you, wide awake in a bright room, and your child, groggy in a dark one.
But if you’re like me, you may have walked into his bedroom and began transitioning his room into “wake up” mode. You pull back the curtains, turn off the white noise, and begin chatting with your child. And it’s easy to do this when you’ve been awake this whole time.
Except this may not be what your child needs or wants. Even now, one of my twins will guard his eyes if I open the curtains too wide in the mornings. To go from dark, quiet room to people chatting in a bright one can be too much to take.
As kids do when they complain, your child may cry. Not only is he out of sorts, he’s also at the age where he can’t communicate clearly. It’s hard enough for adults to mutter, “Please don’t be so loud or open the curtains too much” right when we wake up. For a young child still learning communication skills, crying can be his only way to express his frustration.
Instead, transition your child’s room gently. How does he prefer to wake up? Here are a few ideas to transition slowly:
- Leave the door a few inches open so your child can begin to hear the noises from the rest of the house
- Pull the curtains back only slightly
- Lower the white noise machine or fan only a little bit, not completely off
- Don’t speak to your child right away
- If you have a place to sit or lie down in the room (such as a rocker or big brother’s twin bed), carry him from his own crib or bed and lie down with him
Then, wait for your child to indicate that he’s ready to wake up. This might mean not saying anything until he begins to talk. Or allowing him to lie next to you until he makes a grab for his favorite stuffed animal. Looking for cues like reaching out his arms to get out of his crib or playing with your hands or face.
Instead of directing his actions, allow him to lead and initiate his own transitions. Sometimes kids just need that time to settle back into awake time, all on their own pace.
With such a difference between where you’ve been during nap time and where your child has been, it’s only natural for him to wake up cranky. He’s not used to the loud chatter or brightly lit rooms, at least not yet.
Give him a chance to wake up, however slowly that may be. After all, waking up isn’t simply the moment when we go from sleep to awake. It’s the time it takes for someone to move from sleepiness to wide awake.
For many of us, adults included, this doesn’t happen instantly. Think about the times you wake up in the mornings (or even your own naps) and how you often need a few minutes to hit that snooze button or lay stretching in bed before finally standing up. And even once you do, you often wobble to the bathroom, still unstable and incoherent before rinsing your face or sipping your cup of coffee.
We all can feel crabby after waking up—kids just express them through tears more so than adults.
Don’t rush in, forgetting how sleepy he still is, because you’ve been wide awake this whole time. Instead, give your child an opportunity to transition smoothly from sleep to awake time. Keep the room as is for a few minutes, and wait for his cues that he’s awake, such as waiting for him to initiate conversation.
A gradual transition from napping to awake time can make a huge difference with how your child wakes up.
Give it time: Don’t rush in
You hear those sounds, whether it’s the whimpering beginnings of a cry, or a full-on wail. As jarring as a cry can sound, one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to rush in to our child’s room the minute we hear anything.
Seems strange though, doesn’t it? It almost feels like we’re doing the right thing by tending to our children’s needs the minute we sense something wrong.
Except rushing in doesn’t help anyone, even your child. Why?
Your child isn’t completely awake yet. In fact, if he’s whimpering and pouting, he may still be half asleep with a good chance of settling himself back to sleep. Barging into the room not wakes him up completely, but it also doesn’t allow him the opportunity to learn how to settle back in the first place.
Let’s say you hear whimpering and crying, and your child is beginning to stretch in bed and wake up. He’s likely out of sorts and grumpy. Instead of opening the door and declaring nap time over, try to leave him in there for a few minutes. Yes, even if the whimpers turn into escalated crying, you will at least be entering the room once he’s completely awake.
Ideally, he’ll whimper for several minutes and settle himself down. He may even fall back asleep and was only half awake for a brief time in a dream-like state.
If you’d been washing the dishes and have a few left to do when your child cries, finish those up instead of dropping everything to run to his room. Waiting a few minutes will help both of you.
Another ideal situation is that he does cry, but manages to calm himself down on his own. He’s able to re-orient himself away from his dream and remember he’d been sleeping in his familiar room. He could reach for his special toy and hug or suck his thumb as he calms himself down from feeling frustrated.
And most importantly, he’ll learn the value of waiting. That it’s okay to lie in bed after waking up, and that you’ll eventually come and get him. That his bed is safe, and he’ll always be fine after waking up from a nap, even if he feels groggy.
Should you still wait if your child’s whimpering has turned into a full-on wail? I say yes. It helps you not overreact whenever you hear your child cry, and it teaches him that it’s fine to wait. While he’s unlikely to fall back asleep, there’s still a chance he’ll settle himself after a while.
And even if he doesn’t, over time, he’ll learn that crying doesn’t have to be the only way to wake up—that he can lie down, play, and compose himself first. Sometimes he doesn’t even realize he’s awake. By the time you walk in, there’s a good chance he’ll be in a better mood.
Watch your reaction
Our reactions can send the wrong message.
In the previous tip, we learned the value of not rushing in. Our kids learn to wait, we make better judgments on what warrants our immediate attention, and we feel less stressed.
Another benefit? We avoid sending the message that we’re here to “save” our kids from their frustration. We make a bigger deal out of waking up from a nap when we act like it’s a terrible thing to save them from.
Not that we should disregard our children’s feelings. They clearly feel upset and have a right to own that feeling. It wouldn’t be right to brush it aside, call it petty or wave it away.
That said, we also shouldn’t inflate their frustration beyond what it is—an emotion. There isn’t a dire need to rush in and swoop our kids up from waking up from a nap. They’re not in danger, hurt or otherwise in need of immediate attention. They’re upset, which is something we all feel. Acknowledge their emotion but don’t treat their tears any worse than it is.
Not only do we make waking up from a nap appear worse than it is, our kids are also more likely to mirror our reactions. If we barge in anxious and worried about their tears, they’re more likely to keep crying than if we came in calmly and matter-of-fact. If we show our frustration, they’ll respond with even more tears, anger and hurt. Your own bad mood could send his spiraling even further, causing a back-and-forth cycle between the two of you.
But if we remain calm, you’re modeling the kind of behavior your child can copy. You’re showing him the exact coping mechanisms he needs to learn and develop to manage his frustration after waking up.
Stay calm by giving yourself a pep talk before walking into your child’s room. Remind yourself that this isn’t his fault. That many people—adults included—get cranky after naps, too. That he’ll calm down eventually. By staying calm, you’re also more able to think clearly, say the right things, and be the supportive parent your child needs you to be.
Help your child manage anger
We talked about the importance of remaining calm, both for you and your child. Now it’s time to help him cope with his anger and model for him appropriate ways to deal with frustration.
Accept your child’s emotions as real and normal. It’s really during these times that they need to feel heard, that we understand the depth of their frustration. That their feelings are valid and aren’t petty or childish (even if to us, it sure feels like it).
Don’t diminish his frustration by saying calling him grumpy, or waving it away as if he has no reason to feel upset. As logical as that may seem to us, it’s not what our kids need to hear. They feel so upset about something meaningful enough to draw that kind of anger out of them. To brush it aside as petty not only takes away the value of the reason they cried, but of their emotions and feelings as well. Instead, show your child that you take him seriously and understand the depth of his frustration.
Don’t lecture or give facts right now. Simply hold your child if he allows you and describe what you see. You might say, “It’s tough waking up from a nap sometimes, isn’t it?” Empathize and show you understand and say, “I feel groggy too when I wake up from naps.” Then reassure him that you’re always here for him, no matter what.
And if he allows, hold him in an embrace or touch him like putting your hand on his back. If he isn’t in the mood, then acknowledge that he isn’t, that you respect his space, and that you’re here when he’s ready.
Talk about his emotions. Even if your child isn’t too verbal, it’s important to begin talking about emotions and building the habit of doing so. Not only are you training yourself to speak in these terms, you’re also showing him appropriate ways to discuss how he feels. Remind him that it’s okay to be mad, and that we all feel this way sometimes, and that it goes away. But show him better ways to manage the mad feelings, such as holding his special toy, saying, “Mama!” or putting his hands on his tummy.
Offer a comfort item
In the beginning, babies slept in pretty barren cribs. No pillows, bumpers, blankets, or toys for safety reasons.
Now that your child is older though, a comfort item can be just the thing he needs to help soothe himself after waking up.
What makes for a good comfort item in bed? Typically, you want to use the item your child adores. The one thing he’ll whine about because he can’t seem to find it around the house. This could be anywhere from a stuffed animal to a blankie to a soft book—you name it.
Ideally, the comfort item is actually comfortable, and one that he can sleep with. Because yes, he can be partial to a toy car and can even tuck it in the corner of his bed for safe keeping, but he won’t be able to snuggle with it as he sleeps. And forget about loud toys that make sounds or squeak throughout the day and night.
If your child isn’t partial to anything just yet (or you need an alternative to his loud toy car), start with a stuffed toy. Offer it at each nap and bedtime so he associates it with sleep. He can take it with him around the house, but he should always have it with him when he sleeps.
Hopefully he’ll begin to form an affection for the stuffed toy, which can help him in two ways:
First, if he wakes up crying, he can hold his stuffed toy as he tries to settle himself down. And second, he could even use the stuffed toy to prevent himself from getting upset.
Even now, my three-year-old will walk to his bedroom and grab his comfort item when he feels himself about to cry. Simply having the item can be all kids need to keep themselves from having an outburst.
My favorite are the Angel Dear lovies—check them out here (affiliate link), which are like tiny blankies and stuffed animals combined. They’re lightweight and wash easily as well. All my kids have had lovies and still sleep with them.
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, transitions and a ton of empathy, we know what to do instead.
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Tell me in the comments: What is your biggest challenge with your child waking up after naps? Let me know if you’ve tried these tips and how they worked out for you!
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