Losing your mind because your toddler wakes up crying? Discover the reasons behind the hysterical wake-ups, and what to do to turn it around.
No matter what, it seemed like every day he was set on waking up cranky and crying right from the start. While my other two kids were content to eat breakfast, he’d stay rooted in his room, refusing to leave.
Any attempt to coax him out or at least cheer him up didn’t seem to work. You could say he wasn’t being a “morning person.”
For many parents, the mornings are already off to a rocky start when their toddlers wake up miserable every morning. It’s hard dealing with kids when they rarely wake up happy, and instead cry and scream.
When your toddler wakes up crying
Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you’ve also tried comforting your child to no avail, or need to hold her for a long time before she finally calms down.
The confusing part? She eventually snaps out of it and is happy the rest of the day.
Thing is, grumpy wake-ups are so stressful that they can easily set the tone and leave a bad taste for the rest of the day, no matter how positive you try to be.
Don’t worry, friend—you’re not stuck. For most kids, these cranky wake-ups are a phase and something they’ll eventually outgrow (even if it seems like forever).
You can take an active role to help your toddler cope with these difficult mornings and help him wake up happy with the tips below:
Have an earlier bedtime, even by 15 minutes
One of the most common reasons your toddler wakes up crying is perhaps because he’s still tired.
Many kids struggle with going back to sleep (mine hardly “sleep in” in the mornings), even when they’re exhausted from lack of sleep. And sometimes it’s simply difficult to do, what with the sun rising at a certain time or routines taking hold of their habits.
To accommodate your toddler’s sleep needs, move bedtime earlier, even by 15 minutes. In fact, don’t push bedtime back any more than 15 minutes at a time. So if bedtime is 8pm, see what a 7:45pm bedtime looks like. If you think he can use more sleep, go for 7:30pm next.
This can help your child get the sleep he needs while still waking up at the same time in the mornings.
Tell your child to wake up happy the night before
This advice seems so strange… until you try it.
We forget how powerful messages can be in affecting our behavior, especially right before sleep. After all, our minds are still hard at work, even when we’re fast asleep.
I don’t know about you, but when I go to sleep with a worry or fear in my mind, I don’t always wake up in the best of moods. But when I tell myself that I’ll have a good night’s sleep and wake up feeling positive, that’s exactly what happens.
Try talking to your toddler about how she’ll wake up happy in the morning. Don’t make it a threat (“You should wake up happy tomorrow!”), but rather, plant in her head the idea that she can indeed wake up feeling happy.
You might say, “Have a good night! Tomorrow, you can wake up happy and excited for the day.” He might even repeat it to himself as a bedtime affirmation: “I will wake up happy and excited.”
It’ll also help if you remain calm during this time. Your words will have no meaning if your facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice all communicate anxiety and frustration.
Cuddle with your toddler before wake-up time
I thought I was doing the right thing by letting my toddler sleep in. While his brothers would head to the dining table to eat breakfast, I kept his room dark, with the door only slightly propped open.
But each time, he’d wake up crying, almost upset that he had been “left behind.” He woke up startled to find himself alone, rather than grateful for being able to sleep in.
So I started to beat him to the punch. Instead of waiting for him to wake up cranky, I’d cuddle with him while he was still stirring and waking up.
When he was in his toddler bed, I’d sit next to him and hold him as much as I was able to. Now that he’s in a twin bed, I’ll literally climb into his bed and hold him, gently easing him into wake-up time.
By cuddling with your child before he wakes up, you help transition him from sleep into awake time. And since you’re next to him, he’s less likely to cry or fuss once he’s fully awake.
Bonus tip: If your toddler likes to drink milk after waking up, bring his sippy cup with you. He has his milk ready, giving him one less reason to fuss.
Equip your toddler with tools to cope
Your toddler’s behavior can feel extra exasperating because it seems like a paradox. On one hand, you know your child is tired, but on the other, he refuses to keep sleeping. The thought of anyone else waking up screaming and crying seems almost ridiculous.
Except… this is you looking at the situation from your point of view. When you see it from your toddler’s, then his behavior begins to make more sense, especially when you realize he may not know how to manage his big emotions.
And big emotions he has. While you and I know it’s morning time and can situate ourselves easily, your toddler might be coming out of emotionally-charged dreams or separation anxiety at night. And unlike adults, he’s still learning how to cope when these feelings arise.
So it’s up to you to show him how. Keep in mind, childhood is one long learning moment, where we often find ourselves having to repeat the same things over and over. But it’s in these daily, teachable moments that our kids learn how to better cope.
How can you help your toddler cope?
Begin labeling his feelings. The more your toddler can use words to express how he feels, the less likely he is to cry and instead use his words. Describe how he feels, from “mad” and “sad,” to “excited” and “happy.”
Give him an action plan. Equip your toddler with things he can do when he wakes up instead of getting upset.
Maybe he gets out of bed and finds you, or he can play with toys in his room while he waits for you. He can hold onto his comfort item, sing songs, or tell stories. Give him ideas on what to replace his current behavior with.
Factor in your toddler’s wake-ups into your morning
One of the reasons you’re likely losing your cool is because your toddler’s behavior feels like a major disruption to your morning. If you’re like me, you have a morning routine geared to getting out the door on time—any misstep can throw the whole day off.
But since your toddler wakes up crying, rearrange the start of your day to factor in his behavior.
You could wake up earlier in the day to get breakfast started and dress for the day. Aim to leave later in the morning so that any delay doesn’t make you feel like you’re running late. Keep your mornings slow instead of rigid and fast-paced.
By working your mornings around your toddler’s cranky wake-ups, you give yourself permission to focus on his needs without added stress factors.
Want to determine whether your child is ready to drop a nap? Join my newsletter and download my printable, Transitioning to Fewer Naps! Use it to record when your child is likely ready to take one less nap (hint: 5 days in a row is a good indicator!). Grab it below—at no cost to you:
Starting your day off hearing your toddler screaming isn’t easy for any parent, but now you have a few strategies to cope.
Rearrange your schedule by trying an earlier bedtime, even by 15 minutes. Factor his behavior into your mornings so you don’t feel rushed or frazzled when it happens.
Beat him to the punch and cuddle with him before he wakes up to prevent his fussiness from getting out of control. Equip him with tools to cope, such as by encouraging him to use words to label his feelings, or suggest things to do when he wakes up.
And finally, tell your child to be happy the night before. Give him a positive affirmation right before sleep so he can rest soundly and wake up happy.
I’m pleased to report that my son no longer wakes up screaming every morning. Regardless of whether he was in deep sleep or stirring in his sleep, he outgrew the phase, especially with the help of the tools we discussed.
And perhaps that’s the most important thing to remember: that all kids will outgrow this, including your toddler… even if he doesn’t seem like a “morning person.”
Does your child wake up cranky and screaming from naps? Learn how to help him wake up happier with my ebook, No Cranky Naps! Uncover the reasons he wakes up cranky, and learn how to equip him with the tools to cope with his big feelings.
Tell me in the comments: What are your biggest struggles when your toddler wakes up crying?
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