Frustrated when your toddler wakes up crying every morning? See the reasons behind the hysterical wake-ups, and what to do to turn it around.
His cries and screams were enough to test anyone’s patience—that my toddler started them first thing in the morning didn’t help at all.
No matter what, it seemed like 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 exactly a “morning person.”
For many parents, the mornings are already off to a rocky start when their toddlers always wake up miserable. It’s hard dealing with kids when they rarely wake up happy, and instead cry and scream.
When your toddler wakes up crying every morning
Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you’ve also tried comforting your toddler to no avail, or need to hold her for a long time before she finally calms down.
Thankfully, she doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night, and she even eventually snaps out of it and is happy the rest of the day. And most kids will simply outgrow cranky awakenings (even if it seems like forever in the moment).
But sometimes your toddler might not be getting enough sleep—or enough continuous sleep—to wake up refreshed in the mornings. Perhaps she doesn’t know how to put herself back to sleep in the early mornings, and wakes up grumpy from the lack of rest.
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. As always, check in with your pediatrician to rule out a sleep disorder or other issues. Otherwise, parents like you have found ways to resolve this common problem after reading this article. As one mom said:
“Thank you so much for posting this, it is some solid advice and I feel so much better knowing I am not alone!” -Maureen
You can take an active role in helping your toddler cope with difficult mornings and help her wake up happy with these tips:
1. Have an earlier bedtime, even by 15 minutes
One of the most common reasons your toddler wakes up crying every morning is because she’s still tired.
Many kids struggle with going back to sleep (until now, mine hardly “sleep in” in the mornings), even when they could clearly use it. And sometimes it’s difficult to do, what with the sun rising at a certain time or sleep associations that are hard to break.
To accommodate your toddler’s sleep needs, move the bedtime routine earlier, even by 15 minutes. In fact, don’t push bedtime back any more than 15 minutes at a time. For instance, if bedtime is at 8pm, see what a 7:45pm bedtime looks like. If you think she can use more sleep, go for 7:30pm the next night.
This can help her get the hours of sleep she needs while still waking up at the same time in the mornings.
Free resource: Do you struggle with getting her to sleep at nap time? Grab your copy of 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 she naps. You’ll also get my newsletters, which parents say they LOVE:
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2. Tell your toddler 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 the idea that she can wake up feeling happy.
You might say, “Have a good night! Tomorrow, you can wake up happy and excited for the day.” She might even repeat it to herself as a bedtime affirmation: “I’ll wake up happy and excited.”
Remaining calm during this time will also help. Your words will have no meaning if your facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice show anxiety and frustration.
Get tips on what to do when your toddler is hysterical at bedtime.
3. 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 every morning, he’d wake up crying, 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 crib or toddler bed, I’d sit next to him and hold him as much as I was able to. When he transitioned to a twin bed, I’d literally climb into his bed and hold him, gently easing him into wake-up time.
By cuddling with your sleeping child before she wakes up, you help transition her from sleep into awake time. And since you’re next to her, she’s less likely to throw tantrums once she’s fully awake and alert.
Bonus tip: If she likes to drink milk after waking up, bring her sippy cup with you. She’ll have her milk ready to go, giving her one less reason to fuss.
Learn how to wake a sleeping toddler peacefully.
4. 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 he’s 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 his, 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. You know it’s morning time and can situate yourself easily. But he might be coming out of bad dreams, night terrors, or separation anxiety at night. He could be experiencing changes like potty training or cutting teeth.
And, unlike adults, he’s still learning how to cope when these feelings and experiences arise.
As I say in my book, No Cranky Naps:
“You can’t control how your child wakes up, but you can control how you respond to him. And rather than getting into epic battles, assume the role of a coach who can help him get through big feelings.”
So, it’s up to you to show him how to manage this discomfort. 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 he learns how to better cope.
Start by labeling his feelings. The more he can use words to express how he feels, the less likely he’ll cry. Describe how he feels, from “mad” and “sad,” to “excited” and “happy.”
And give him an action plan, equipping him 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. He can hold onto his lovey or blanket, sing songs, or tell stories. Give him options to replace his current behavior.
Learn how to discuss emotions with your toddler.
5. 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 every morning, rearrange the start of your day to factor in her behavior.
You could wake up earlier 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 her cranky wake-ups, you give yourself time to focus on her needs without added stress factors.
Learn what to do when your 2 year old refuses to sleep.
What to do with early wake ups?
What do you do if your toddler is waking up not only crying, but early in the morning?
You want him to sleep later because he’s clearly tired, but he won’t. Waking up even earlier than him won’t work since you need your sleep, too. And it doesn’t help that he cries inconsolably every morning, angry at the new day.
How can you get him to wake up happy and later in the morning?
Start by setting an expectation of what time he should wake up—let’s say 6:30am. If he wakes up at 5:40am, calmly walk in, make sure all is fine, and let him know that it’s not time to wake up yet. Close the door and leave the room.
Check in every few minutes doing the same thing (without staying too long each time), until 6:30am. You’ll likely repeat this the next few mornings until he gets the point that waking up doesn’t mean it’s time to start the day.
Over time, he might even learn to soothe himself back to sleep, or at least learn that it’s okay to wake up calmly and enjoy the morning while he waits for you.
Tip: Get an alarm clock or timer that lights up at a certain time. This can be his cue that it’s officially time to wake up.
Learn how to respond to your toddler waking up at 4am in the morning.
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 her behavior into your mornings so you don’t feel rushed or frazzled when it happens.
Cuddle with her before she wakes up to prevent her fussiness from getting out of control. Equip her with tools to cope by encouraging her to use words to label feelings, or suggesting things to do when she wakes up.
And finally, tell her to be happy the night before. Positive affirmation right before sleep can help her rest soundly and wake up happy.
I’m pleased to report that my son no longer woke up screaming every morning. Regardless of whether he was in deep sleep or stirring throughout, 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.”
Get more tips:
- What to Do When Your Toddler Is Hysterical at Bedtime
- Top 6 Tips to Get Through the Toddler Sleep Regression
- Transitioning to a Toddler Bed at 18 Months
- How to Create a Successful Toddler Sleep Schedule
- Brilliant Tips to Stop Your Toddler Waking Up Too Early
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Maureen Benzile Mbethe says
Thank you so much for posting this, it is some solid advise and I feel so much better knowing I am not alone!
Nina Garcia says
My pleasure, Maureen! You are definitely not alone, and I’m glad the advice is coming in handy. Rest assured you’re doing a good job, mama!
Thanks for the advice. I have twin 23 month old girls and an 11 month boy in the same room, all in their own cribs. The 4 year old is in his own room. So, Twin A is the one who wakes up crying and screaming. Twin B is used to it but she can only take so much. It’s an interesting situation since there are 3 babies in one room. The baby takes two naps and the toddlers take one per day. I try to give them all an afternoon nap so I have some time for a break or a nap myself. The baby wakes up and Twin A is very sensitive and she wakes even when I’m super ninja stealthy. Oy! Any advice? I also have a small fan going as extra white noise. I’m so tired!
Nina Garcia says
Thanks Gabby! And yes, I can totally see why you’re tired—four kids under four, and twins too 🙂 If the baby is waking up Twin A, I would perhaps put the baby in either your room or your 4-year-old’s room in a pack and play for the nap, so that he doesn’t wake up Twin A for that afternoon nap. Hopefully by separating them, they can get more uninterrupted sleep.
What about if your toddler is waking up super early and crying? I want her to sleep later because she is clearly tired- but she won’t. Trying to get ahead of her 5:40a wake up call doesn’t seem like the solution, and trying to cuddle her before she wakes up doesn’t either- both require us getting up even earlier when all we want is more sleep! And she cries inconsolably for almost an hour every morning like she is so angry at the new day. Is putting her down earlier going to have her wake up earlier? We keep the room so dark, with a white noise machine + fan + humidifier. She has her lovey. How do I get her to wake up happy AND to wake up later?!
Nina Garcia says
Hi Sam! Early wake ups are definitely rough. I’d set an expectation of what time she should wake up, let’s say 6:30am. If she wakes up at 5:40am, calmly walk in, make sure all is fine, and let her know that it’s not time to wake up yet and that she should go back to sleep. Check in every few minutes doing this same thing (don’t stay too long each time), until 6:30am. You’ll likely have to repeat this over the next few mornings until she gets the point that waking up doesn’t mean it’s already time to wake up. She might even learn how to soothe herself back to sleep, or at least learn that it’s okay to wake up calmly and enjoy the morning while she waits for you.
Pure Despair / insane behind the facade says
What do you do when the child is one year old and doesn’t speak yet? She was also born with half a heart but had surgeries and is doing remarkably well for her condition. I am certain the hospitalizations were traumatic for her , which sends my heart into sadness.
Anyways the problem is She wakes up several times a night AND OR early in the morning crying LOUDLY and I have actually gone to hide sometimes to hit myself out of frustration. My sleep deprivation is severe and affects every part of my broken being. Since she was born I haven’t been able to sleep normally ever again and live in absolute regret and despair every miserable day of my life. I am so tired I also can’t make it to the gym and I am sole financial provider bc her dad doesn’t work I feel very negative every day and I have no family near and even when they visited they honestly didn’t help me much what do I do?
I’m sorry you are going through such a hard time. Babies cry because they are communicating something, (thirsty, hot, cold, uncomfortable, wet, etc) or she might just need you close to her after the trauma of hospital etc. if you are able to co-sleep safely it might help you to get more rest, it worked for me. My Bub just needed me there and slept better when we were on a queen mattress on the floor. All babies will eventually sleep through the night without sleep training, they just need love and support – mine now sleeps all night in the cot after a cuddle. They are completely dependent on you. You also have to be kind to yourself, you are doing your best and it is normal to feel overwhelmed. Try to be practical and delegate to your partner rather than trying to do it all yourself. Talking to other mums to let off steam or a councillor might also help you to feel better emotionally, I understand the frustration but it sounds like you are becoming depressed and feel desperate. Take some deep breaths, try to work out a practical plan moving forward. Your baby isn’t being manipulative or trying to make things difficult. I hope you feel better soon and things improve for you.
Laura Norman says
Any tips for a 13 month old who wakes up crying every time? (Naps and night time). He sleeps brilliantly and self settles happily and alone in a dark room – between 1-2 hours of naps twice a day and 7-7 overnight with one 11pm milk wake. He just ALWAYS wakes up screaming. Never calm, gurgling wake ups. Every single time he wakes up he’s unhappy.
Can’t explain/talk to him about it as he’s too young to understand, and can’t imagine he needs *more* sleep than he’s already getting. He’s not restless and constantly waking. No idea what is causing it. Any advice?
Nina Garcia says
Hi Laura! I totally know what you mean about the constant crying after every wake up. I didn’t even know kids could wake up without crying because my eldest always woke up upset for naps. Take a look at these articles that talk about babies waking up crying:
Since it seems like he’s sleeping well and getting enough sleep, one thing I would to consider is hunger. He might still cry after waking up, but maybe have a sippy cup of milk or even simple snacks ready to go so he calms down as he drinks and eats. Another thing to try is to “wake” him up before you sense that he’s about to wake up on his own, by carrying him and holding him in the same room, for instance, on a recliner or even on a blanket on the floor. He’ll get to wake up with you next to him, which can feel better than waking up alone.
I hope that helps Laura! xo, Nina