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

We tell you why toddlers wake up crying

Every veteran parent has memories of a time (or lots of times) when their toddler woke up in a fit of tears in the middle of the night or way too early in the morning. If you’re a parent going through it now, we feel you. These instances are normally a one- or two-night ordeal, usually caused by a disruption to their sleep routine.

A young tot that consistently wakes up crying is concerning for any parent. This not only disrupts your own routine, but creates a difficult 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 there are steps for parents and guardians to try to remedy this predicament. Let’s dive into a few of those underlying issues so parents can work out the kinks of their child’s teary times and get everyone back to a regular sleep schedule.

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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 that 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. We know, we’re just as jealous.

An example of hours broken down

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 for a number of reasons, but those with special schedules are encouraged to stick to a similar routine every night. Proper length of rest each night is what’s key for your tot to wake up and not choose violence for the day.

Toddler boy crying

Your toddler is confused

Every parent has carried a sleeping child and gently put them to bed so as to not wake them up. But that’s just it – that child’s last memory was being held by their parent, nursing from their 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 if they get up in a different spot.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, a revered pediatric psychologist and child development expert, offers 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 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 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 throughout the day.

Toddler sleeping in his crib with their stuffed animal

What else to look for

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 screaming.

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

Children are creatures of habit and learn new things at such a rapid pace. Set schedules are important to allow their brains an opportunity to rest and recoup from new information processed on a daily basis. If a parent wants outside guidance, discuss concerns surrounding the child’s sleep patterns with support members (partners, significant others, grandparents, and the child’s physician) as they are excellent resources.

We know your toddler is going to wake you up early, but we want to help keep the noise in the morning to a minimum. We also know no one terrorizes 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, make sure the things we discussed are looked into – for the sake of everyone’s sanity.

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