Issues Sleep

Why Does My Toddler Wake Up Crying? 8 Causes & Solutions

Oh no, not again!

Just as your toddler has settled into a solid sleep routine, they’ve started to wake up crying from their daytime naps or at night.

My toddler used to be a great napper, until she gradually became more and more upset and emotional each time she woke up from her afternoon nap, so I know this problem all too well.

As a new parent it can be very disconcerting to hear your child wake up cranky or crying, not to mention tiring if your toddler wakes up in the night crying as well.

So in this post we’ve taken a look at some of the most common reasons why you toddler might be waking up crying, and what you can do to help resolve the issue.

Let’s jump straight in.

8 Reasons Your Toddler Wakes Up Crying

Firstly, it’s worth stating that when researching this article I discovered that it’s perfectly normal and very common for toddlers to wake up crying, cranky and in an otherwise bad mood.

That in itself can be reassuring, because it confirms that there’s typically nothing serious to worry about if your child is going through a phase of waking up crying at the moment.

Here are some of the most common issues that could be causing this:

1. Feeling Confused Or Disoriented

One possible reason why your toddler is waking up crying is because they are confused when they first open their eyes.

Has your toddler ever fallen asleep in the car or in their stroller, only for you to move them into their crib?

If so, imagine their surprise when they woke up to discover there are in a different environment to the one in which they fell asleep.

Even if you haven’t moved your child during their nap, it’s still quite possible that your toddler is waking up feeling disorientated or a little “out of it”.

Less common but also worth mentioning is something called confusional arousal, which is when a child wakes up and acts in a strange and confused way.

While frightening for parents, confusional arousals is fairly harmless in children, and occurs less frequently after the age of five.

2. Hunger

Father Holding his Son on his Lap and Feeding Him

I don’t know about you, but when I’m hungry I can get more than a little cranky.

Chances are your toddler is no different, which explains why one of the most common reasons a child wakes up crying is because they are hungry.

They might not tell you this directly – for example by saying “mommy I want milk”, but the discomfort of an empty stomach can make your toddler understandably cranky.

Talking of milk, if your toddler wakes up at night after only an hour or two, you might want to give them a little more milk, because that’s often an effective way to settle your child again and help get them back to sleep quickly.

3. Bad Dreams

Next on our list are bad dreams and nightmares.

Experts cannot be 100% sure, but it’s generally thought that dreams and nightmares begin when a child is around the age of two.

So if your toddler is waking up crying or upset, there’s a chance that it’s down to them having an unpleasant dream.

Interestingly, researchers believe that bad dreams are more likely to happen if your child is experiencing overtiredness, stressfear or anxiety

So those might be areas that you want to think about or dig into if you think there’s a chance they could be affecting your little one right now.

4. Night Terrors

Night terrors and nightmares might sound like the same thing, but there are actually some key differences.

Nightmares or bad dreams happens when a child is in the REM (rapid eye movement) party of their sleep cycle, also known as the dream cycle.

When a child has a nightmare, they will most likely remember what was happening in their dream to some extent, meaning they can tell you what happened if you ask them the next morning.

Night terrors or sleep terrors on the other hand happen during the deeper NREM (non rapid eye movement) stage of sleep.

Little Boy Crying

If your child has a sleep terror, they might cry or scream as they might with a nightmare, but technically they are not awake.

As such, they will not remember what is going on if you try to chat about what happened the next morning, and mom or dad’s reassurance or hugs in the night are likely to go completely unnoticed and have no impact at all.

Having said that, experts say that in many cases a child who has a night terror only needs comfort and reassurance.

If your child is experiencing night terrors, it’s best not to wake them but instead to make soothing comments and hold them in your arms or pat their back if it seems to help.

As with bad dreams, a night terror can be triggered if your child becomes overly-tired, so be sure your little one goes to bed early enough to have a long enough to get their full quota.

5. Overtiredness

Speaking of overtiredness, did you know that a well rested toddler is less likely to resist sleep and will typically sleep better and for longer periods compared to a toddler who is overtired.

A helpful piece of knowledge for parents is that children make quite a distinctive sound when they are overtired.

So if your little one has a cry that’s nasal, whiny and consistent, there’s a good chance that overtiredness is the root cause of them waking up crying, and they need more rest or sleep each day.

And if you’ve recently dropped their daily nap, you may need to consider brining it back.

Must Read: How To Break The Cycle Of An Overtired Baby

6. Afraid Of Darkness

We’ve mentioned before that babies are not afraid of the dark, because they are too young to have an imagination.

But by the time your child reaches toddler age, they are old enough to have an imagination but not old enough (or wise enough) to be able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

When a baby is young they actually like the dark and sleep better in dark rooms, both at night and during daytime naps.

But when your two or three year old’s bedroom is too dark, they can easily become afraid.

I had this same issue with my daughter – we’d put her to sleep when it was still light outside, but once the sun set and her room became dark, she’d start crying.

Much to our reassurance, after some trial and error we discovered that a night light similar to the one below instantly put an end to the crying.

Top tip: when introducing the night light for the first time, tell your child it’s there to protect them and try to personify it, as this will go a long way to helping them feel reassured and safe when they wake up in the middle of the night.

Lumipets Night Light for Kids ($24.99, Amazon)

7. Change In Routine

Routines are very important for babies and toddlers, so whenever something changes it’s worth keeping track to see if it’s having a knock-on effect in other areas of their lives.

Things like transitioning out of a crib, starting daycare or moving home can all have a big impact on a child, and if your toddler’s routine has changed, it could lead to them waking up crying, particularly in the night.

8. Pain Or Illness

If your toddler suddenly starts waking up crying and you can’t seem to figure out why, one reason could be down to pain, discomfort or an illness.

Fevers, stomach aches, sore throats and common colds are all common illnesses that can cause a toddler to wake up crying or screaming in the night.

A less obvious but equally common culprit for an unsettled toddler is teething.

We tend to assume that teething happens in babies, but most children don’t have all their milk teeth until they are between 2 and 3 years old.

If you think teething could be the reason why your child is waking up crying, in addition to brushing twice daily, here are three simple tips that the experts from Mayo Clinic recommend:

  1. Rub your child’s gums using a clean finger.
  2. Keep the area cool using a cold spoon or chilled teething ring.
  3. Try an over-the-counter remedy such as acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) or ibuprofen (e.g. Advil, Motrin).

How To Deal With A Toddler That Wakes Up Crying

We’ve covered why your toddler might be waking up crying, and in many cases we’ve addressed the most obvious solutions above.

Here are some other things to consider when dealing with a child who wakes up crying:

  • Firstly, consider their basic needs. You can think of these as a simple checklist to go through in your head. Is your toddler hungry? Could their diaper need changing? Are they constipated? Do they feel too warm or too cold?
  • Check if they are in physical pain. If your child is teething, do you have any of the remedies we mentioned above that you could offer them to relieve the pain? If they have a cold, could placing a humidifier in their room help? Needles to say, if you think your toddler is in a lot of pain or something could be seriously wrong, then you should call your doctor so they can take a look or advise on the appropriate care.
  • Develop a consistent bedtime routine. This one is more preventative, but it’s worth stressing that unless your child has a strong and consistent bedtime routine, it can be difficult for them to feel settled and they might struggle to soothe themselves back to sleep whenever they wake up suddenly. Things like winding down before bed, brushing teeth, having a bath and reading stories are all great ways to develop that much needed routine that kids thrive on, and they can also help break the cycle of overtired toddler.
  • Wake them up in stages or slowly. Some children really don’t like to be woken up suddenly, perhaps because they get a fright or are startled from the quick transition between being fast asleep and wide awake. That’s when it can be helpful to wake them up slowly. Here’s how it might play out: First make some noise outside their room to get them to stir, then open the door but do not enter the room. You might then want to turn their white noise machine off. After that, open the curtains to let some light in, but leave the room again. Then once your child has adjusted to being awake, you can get them out of bed. Essentially what these steps are doing is giving your child more time to adjust to being awake, and they help make the transition from being asleep to being awake a little more comfortable and gradual.
  • Lastly, give them time. This is what we did with our daughter and it worked well, so you might want to consider it. Sometimes your child just wants to cry upon waking from a nap for seemingly no apparent reason, and going into their room to comfort them makes things worse. In these instances, it can be best to just accept they are a little cranky and emotional, and give them a few minutes to calm themselves down and go back to being their normal (and hopefully happy) self.

Must Read: The Ultimate Guide To Baby & Toddler Sleep

Tori is mama to 3 year old Isabella and co-founder of Rockinbaby. She has a BSc in Psychology, is a certified yoga teacher and is a working mom. In her free time Tori loves cooking delicious foods and baked treats, entertaining and working out. Learn more about Tori here.

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