Skip to main content

Why do toddlers wake up crying? A few alarming things might be going on

This is why toddlers wake up crying

Every parent recalls a time when their toddler woke up in a fit of tears. These instances are often a one or two-night occurrence and usually are caused by a disruption of their sleep routine in some way. Children are creatures of habit and kids — small ones especially — are learning new things at such a rapid pace, so set schedules allow their brains an opportunity to rest and recoup from new information processed on a daily basis.

Kids who consistently wake up crying will be a concern for any mom or dad. This not only disrupts your own routines as parents, but creates a difficult living environment for everybody else in the home. If you’re wondering why toddlers wake up crying, there are a few reasons for this behavior, and steps parents and guardians can take. Let’s dive into a few of those underlying issues so parents — together with their support team and pediatrician — can work out the kinks of their child’s teary mornings.

Why toddlers wake up crying

Your toddler is still tired

We know this seems like an obvious reason as to why your toddler is flailing around each morning. But the number one reason toddlers are cranky post-sleep is: they didn’t receive enough of it. You may be wondering exactly how much sleep toddlers need and if your little one is getting the recommended quantity. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), toddlers require 11 to 14 hours of sleep per night.

An example of hours broken down would look something like this:

11 hours — bedtime at 7 pm and up at 6 am
12 hours — bedtime at 7 pm and up at 7 am
13 hours — bedtime at 7 pm and up at 8 am
14 hours — bedtime at 7 pm and up at 9 am

Your toddler is likely fussy in the mornings because their body didn’t get enough rest. We know it’s hard to stick to a set schedule if the parents are working. But those with special schedules are encouraged to stick to a similar routine in any home the child will be sleeping in. Proper length of rest each night is what’s key for your tot to wake up and not choose violence for the day.

Your toddler is confused

Every parent has a memory of carrying a sleeping child and gently putting them to bed so they won’t wake up. But that’s just it – that child’s last memory was being held by her parents, nursing from her mother, or lying on the couch. When a child wakes in a different environment from where they fell asleep, what happens is known as confusional arousal.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine defines pediatric confusional arousal as “a sleep disorder that causes you to act in a very strange and confused way as you wake up or just after waking.” Children who were put to bed asleep, and otherwise happy, may display erratic behavior in the morning by crying and screaming before, immediately, or just after waking.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, a revered pediatric psychologist and child development expert, offers parents suggestions on making changes to their routines, adding a few key items to the room, and allowing for a more relaxed sleep environment for the child. Additionally, many experts believe and often recommend that parents take their children to their beds while in a state of drowsiness yet still remaining conscious enough of their surroundings to avoid pediatric confusional arousal.

A toddler waking up crying in their crib.

Your toddler may have developed learned hunger

Dr. Craig Canapari, the director of Yale’s Pediatric Sleep Center, loosely defines his theory of learned hunger as, “Imagine I woke you up every night at 2 am and gave you an ice cream sundae. One week later, I stop feeding you at night. But you still would wake up hungry. This is what happens to some kids. It is unclear why this is the case. I suspect that some parents get in the habit of responding to any nocturnal awakenings with feeding. Just like you might feel sleepy after having that ice cream sundae, they go back to sleep. Over time, the pattern gets reinforced.”

This learned pattern of night feeding can be difficult to break. For parents, the recommended way to avoid this is to refrain from night feedings after six months of age. If your baby is healthy and developing as they should, night feedings don’t need to continue as they are receiving adequate nutrition and calories throughout the day.

And we only went over three reasons why your toddler wakes up upset that you need to dive deeper into. It’s important to remember these aren’t the only concerning things to check when your tot won’t wake up without a scream.

Others include:

  • Medical issues such as GERD (acid reflux) or other digestive discomforts
  • Night terrors or parasomnias
  • Environmental disturbances such as loud neighbors, barking dogs, or distracting room elements.

It is vital that parents discuss any concerns surrounding their child’s sleep patterns with support members of their “village.” These people (such as partners, significant others, parents or grandparents, and your child’s physician) are excellent resources, the best support system, and are often parents’ first line of defense against bigger medical and mental health needs.

We know your kiddo is going to wake you up early a lot, but we also want to keep the noise in the morning to a minimum. No one can terrorize a house like a toddler. But if yours keeps waking up the whole home with wails that aren’t the normal toddler variety every single morning, go ahead and make sure the things we discussed are looked into.

Editors' Recommendations