Losing your mind because your toddler wakes up crying every morning? Discover 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 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 always 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 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. The confusing part? She eventually snaps out of it and is happy the rest of the day.
For most kids, these cranky wake-ups are simply a phase they’ll eventually outgrow (even if it seems like forever).
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. Parents just like you have found ways to turn things around after reading this article:
“Thank you so much for posting this, it is some solid advise and I feel so much better knowing I am not alone!” -Maureen
You can take an active role to help your toddler cope with these difficult mornings and help her wake up happy with these tips (read for more or watch the video below):
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 (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 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. 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 sleep she needs while still waking up at the same time in the mornings.
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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 indeed 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 will 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 communicate anxiety and frustration.
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 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 toddler 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 cry or fuss once she’s fully awake.
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.
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. While you and I know it’s morning time and can situate ourselves easily, he 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.
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. 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, sing songs, or tell stories. Give him ideas on options to replace his current behavior.
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.
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 her to sleep later because she’s clearly tired, but she won’t. Waking up even earlier than her won’t work since you need your sleep, too. And it doesn’t help that she cries inconsolably every morning, angry at the new day.
How can you get her to wake up happy and later in the morning?
Start by setting 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 the same thing (without staying too long each time), until 6:30am. You’ll likely repeat this the next few mornings until she gets the point that waking up doesn’t mean it’s time to start the day.
Over time, she might even learn 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.
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.
Beat her to the punch and cuddle with her before she wakes up to prevent her fussiness from getting out of control. Equip her with tools to cope, such as 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 wakes 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
Don’t forget: Download your copy of The Five Habits That Will Make Your Child’s Naps Easier: