It’s tough when your child always wakes up early, miserable after nap and screaming. Learn what you can do when your toddler wakes up crying from naps!
Not again, I thought.
My toddler had never been a great napper and often fought his afternoon nap. And when he did nap, he’d always wake up cranky, whining and crying for up to an hour after waking up. If you’re so miserable, why didn’t you keep sleeping?!, I felt like telling them.
As a first-time mom, I never even knew kids could wake up any other way. I figured every toddler cried, just as babies would often cry post nap. In fact, it wasn’t until I met another mom who said her son would simply sit in his crib, smiling after a nap, and wait for her to come get him.
My eyes just about bugged out.
After hearing that bit of news, I wondered what could be making my son wake up so cranky. I wished he’d just chat to himself and stretch in bed when he woke up, instead of waking up screaming from a nap.
Why your toddler wakes up crying from naps
As usual, I dug into the research to learn why some toddlers could wake up cheerful and happy, while others, like my son, cried no matter what. I learned that yes, it is normal for toddlers to wake up crying, and that the biggest culprits were these:
- Not enough sleep. The most common reason is simply the lack of sleep. If your toddler naps for a measly 30-45 minutes the entire day, waking up can make for one cranky wake up.
- Feeling disoriented. Even with enough sleep, naps can leave us feeling disoriented and “out of it,” our toddlers included. The confusion can be enough to make your toddler cry and fuss.
- Bad dreams. Just like the rest of us, bad dreams during naps can make for an equally bad wake up.
- Hunger. And of course, good ol’ hunger. Your toddler might not cry for food, but the discomfort of an empty stomach can make him just as cranky.
As I say in my book, No Cranky Naps:
“We can all feel cranky and grouchy after waking up from a nap. As restful and necessary as naps are for kids, they’re not always the easiest to wake up from. He may feel just as out of sorts as you and I get.
He may also be waking up from a bad dream and struggling with piecing reality together from such an experience. For anyone who has had a strange, surreal or frightening dream, waking up can feel overwhelming.”
What to do when your toddler wakes up crying from naps
Perhaps you can relate—and even feel annoyed at the daily post nap crying. You find it ridiculous for your toddler to even tantrum for seemingly no good reason, especially after a long nap at that. You’ve either resorted to time outs to “teach him a lesson,” or begrudgingly relied on screen time to calm him down.
And you’re worried because, while the meltdowns started as the occasional post nap cry, they’ve now been happening every day.
But here’s the thing: your toddler likely can’t tell you why he’s crying, even if you ask him later in the day. So it’s up to you to find ways to help him cope with these intense emotions.
No worries, friend—you’re in the right place. You see, it wasn’t just my eldest who’d cry after every short nap. His brother would also cry after naps, even if he had slept for three hours, and especially if he realized he was alone in the room.
Thankfully, I found that certain strategies helped ease the transition between naps and wake times. No longer do you have to look forward to the day your toddler stops napping for all this to be over. Instead, try these strategies to finally stop him from crying after naps:
1. Wake your toddler up in stages
What?! Wake him up? you might think. After all, nap time is when you get a break in the day. If your toddler barely naps as it is, waking him up seems preposterous.
Except I’ve found that gently waking your toddler up—before he wakes himself—can drastically reduce the tears.
But it’s not just about turning on the lights and saying, “Wake up time!” In fact, quite the opposite: wake him up in stages, going in and out of the room to let him stir on his own. Let him wake up slowly, and keep everything mellow.
For instance, open the door to the room and rub his back, just enough to barely wake him up, before leaving the room. A few minutes later, go back and turn off the white noise, then leave the room again.
Keep going back every few minutes, changing one aspect of the room or gently waking him up, so that he has more time to adjust to being awake.
Free resource: By the way, do you struggle with getting your child to take a nap? Download The Five Habits That Will Make Your Child’s Naps Easier! Discover the five steps you need to do to finally get a break while your child naps. Join my newsletter and grab your copy below:
2. Lie down with your toddler
Similarly, you can also wake your toddler up, but this time, continue to lie down with him.
Instead of changing parts of the room, simply lie down and hold him as he sleeps. You can help him wake up by rubbing his back, ruffling his hair, giving him a kiss… anything to let him slowly wake while realizing that you’re right next to him.
One of my twins—the one who’d wake up cranky even after a three-hour nap—would wake up so much happier knowing I was right next to him.
Now, this is of course easier to do if your toddler sleeps in a twin or toddler bed than one with a rail or in a crib. But even then, you can lift him and sit in a rocking chair, the couch, or a comfortable spot on the floor (for instance, on a bean bag or pile of pillows) so he can slowly wake up in your arms.
3. Set an alarm to music
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Some parents have found music to be an effective way to wake their toddlers and prevent post-nap crying. Set an alarm to play soothing, soft music at a certain time to gently rouse your toddler from sleep.
Then, set your alarm about 10 minutes after the music starts to come into his room. This way, he’s had a few minutes to stir between wake and sleep time, ready for you to wake him up.
Take a look at these child-friendly alarm clocks:
So, what happens if your toddler wakes up long before you’re even able to wake him up yourself? Or perhaps you do try to gently rouse him, only for him to still throw a fit?
Let’s now talk about what to do when your toddler wakes up crying from naps, despite your best efforts, starting with incentives.
4. Give an incentive
Now, I’m normally not a fan of traditional rewards—stickers and candy for potty training, for example. But you can give your toddler a simple incentive by reminding him what he can look forward to now that he’s awake.
Yes, allow him to feel his feelings—don’t feel pressured to “distract” him away from them—but remind him of what he can do now that he’s awake.
For instance, remind him that his favorite snack is ready on the dining table, or that it’s time to go to swim class. That way, he focuses less on the misery of waking up from his nap, and more on the things and events he can look forward to.
5. Cuddle on the couch
Sometimes a change of scenery—and having you nearby—is all your toddler needs to stop being miserable after nap. If he wakes up upset, carry him to the couch (or your bed, or living room) and simply hold him as he cries.
Yes, it’s tough to listen to him crying, especially when it feels like you do this day in and day out. But a few minutes cuddling on the couch as he releases his tears can be all he needs to stop. And besides, 20 minutes of crying and cuddling on the couch beats an hour of losing your temper and hearing even more tears.
6. Offer a snack and drink
I’ve mentioned snacks a few times now, and for good reason: Sometimes the only thing that would snap my kids out of their post-nap tears is food.
You can even combine snacks and drinks with other strategies. Offer a sippy cup of milk while you cuddle on the couch, or remind him that his snacks are waiting for him in the kitchen. After all, he may have gone a long time before his last meal—he could be genuinely hungry from having been asleep this whole time.
Prepare his snack and milk as soon as he’s down for a nap, so you have it ready to go no matter what time he happens to wake up. And combine drinking milk with reading books in bed. This combination worked nearly all the time with my eldest to calm him down.
7. Don’t get your toddler up just yet
What happens if your toddler wakes up crying from naps when he’s barely been down at all? One of my kids could never seem to nap longer than 45 minutes—I’d often be shocked those rare days when he’d cross the hour mark.
If you’d like to lengthen your toddler’s naps—or if he woke up prematurely from his usual lengthy one—don’t get him up just yet.
In other words, rather than ending nap time the minute he wakes up and cries, end it when you say so. The trick is to set a predetermined time as the “official” wake up time, and don’t get him up any earlier than that.
Let’s say you want him to nap for an hour, but he wakes up crying within 30 minutes. Calmly go into his room and let him know it’s still time to sleep, not get out of bed just yet. Then, if he’s still crying 15 minutes later, go into his room once more and remind him the same thing.
Only once those 30 minutes have passed do you then get him out of bed and ready for the day.
Now, will he fall back asleep within those 30 minutes? More than likely, no. But over time, he’ll learn that waking up early from naps doesn’t mean it’s time to get the rest of the afternoon started just yet. Instead, he’ll learn to wait quietly in bed—and yes, maybe even go back to sleep—until you come get him up.
If your toddler always wakes up crying after naps, know that you’re not alone, friend. And that you don’t have to wait until he drops naps completely for the madness to be over.
Start by beating him to the punch and waking him up before he rouses himself. You might do this by going in and out of his room in stages, or simply lying down with him as he wakes up. An alarm set to soothing music can also help transition him from sleep to wake time.
That said, if your toddler wakes up early from nap crying despite your best efforts, give him incentives to switch his mood. Or perhaps spend a few minutes cuddling with him on the couch, soothing and comforting him to a calmer state.
Offering a snack or milk right after he wakes up can also calm him down (especially if you pair it with reading books in bed). And finally, don’t get him up just because he woke up early and cried. Check in periodically and let him know it’s still time to sleep, so he learns it’s okay to wait until you get him up.
No more “Not again!” post nap crying, my friend! Your toddler can learn to sleep well—and wake up happy, not crying, from naps.
Get more tips:
- Helping Your Toddler Transition from Two Naps to One
- How to Wake Up a Toddler Peacefully from a Nap
- What You Need to Do when Your Toddler Won’t Nap
- What to Do When Your Toddler Is Hysterical at Bedtime
- Top 6 Tips to Get Through the Toddler Sleep Regression
Free resource: Do you struggle with getting your child to take a nap? Download The Five Habits That Will Make Your Child’s Naps Easier! Discover the five steps you need to do to finally get a break while your child naps. Join my newsletter and grab your copy below: