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

As parents, each of us can recall a time when our toddler awoke in the morning in a fit of tears. These instances are often a one or two-night occurrence and are usually followed by a disruption of their sleep pattern or routine in some way. Children, in general, are creatures of habit and function best when a routine is followed. Because kids — small ones especially — are learning new things at such a rapid pace, their routines and set schedules allow their brains an opportunity to rest and recoup from new information processed on a daily basis.

Kids who wake up crying on a regular basis can quickly become a strong concern for any mom or dad, as this not only disrupts your own routines, it creates an unhealthy living environment for everyone. When everyone is rested, a cooperative and cohesive family unit can flourish and thrive. If your little one is waking inconsolable and upset, there are a few reasons for this behavior, as well as steps parents and guardians can take to prevent further issues or permanent behaviors later down the line. Let’s dive into a few of those underlying issues, and how 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 may seem like an obvious response or reasoning 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 also if your little one is getting the recommended quantity of it. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), toddlers require 11 to 14 hours of sleep per night. An example of those hours broken down into time slots 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 his body did not receive enough rest. Working parents or those with special schedules are encouraged to adopt a similar routine in their own homes to coincide with their family’s needs; however, enough rest each night is what’s key.

Your toddler is confused

Every parent can remember holding a sleeping child and carrying her to bed. Likewise, That child’s last thought or 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 which she 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 some suggestions on making changes to their routines or adding a few key items to the room, 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 in a state of drowsiness while the child remains conscious of her surroundings.

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 night feeds is to refrain from night feedings after six months of age. If your baby is healthy and developing as he should, night feedings need not continue, as the baby is receiving adequate nutrition and calories throughout the day.

Those are but three reasons your toddler could be waking up irrationally upset, however, it’s important to remember these aren’t the only concerning ones. 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 those designated support members of their “village” such as partners, significant others, parents or grandparents, and most importantly: your child’s physician. These people are excellent resources of knowledge and support and are often parents’ first line of defense against bigger medical and mental health occurrences.

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