Why Is My Toddler Cranky After Daycare? (6 Easy Fixes)

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I’m pretty sure 99% of parents have been there.

You’ve had a long day at work, and you go to pick up your toddler from daycare.

You’ve missed them! You’re excited to see them!

And when you first walk through the door, they’re all hugs and smiles.

But as soon as you get into the car, it’s meltdown city.

Tears. Wails. Screaming.

Sound familiar?

Why are toddlers so cranky after daycare?

The quick answer is: It’s completely normal, and most likely they’re just mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted from a day packed full of learning, being active, and missing you.

In fact, there’s an official term for being cranky after school or daycare. It’s called After-School Restraint Collapse! It effects young toddlers all the way to high-schoolers.

You can’t really “make” them stop being cranky after daycare pickup, but you can stay calm, let them work through their feelings, and try a couple of cool fixes to keep from overstimulating them and making things worse.

Let’s take a closer look.

4 reasons toddlers are so grumpy after daycare

There are some legitimate and pretty universal reasons for this phenomenon.

And there’s no specific age limit for it, really.

18-month-olds, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, and everyone in between can suffer from the five o’clock meltdown, otherwise known as After-School Restraint Collapse (when their ability to Restrain themselves literally Collapses).

Here’s what might be going on (it’s usually a combination of all of these and more):

They’re physically tired

Simply put, by the end of the day, your kid is wiped out!

The same way we’re pooped after a long day of work.

It happens to toddlers, too.

Think about it. Young kids very often have problems with at least one of the following:

  • Going to bed too late
  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Waking up too early
  • Napping too long or not at all

And then they’re at daycare playing, learning, running around for 6-10 hours at a time.

That’s a long day!

Long enough to make anyone a little bit cranky.

They’re mentally exhausted

A key difference between adults and children is that, for us, a lot of life has become routine.

  • Our drive to work
  • The things we see out the window
  • The people in the office
  • The food in the grocery store
  • The weather

We’re kind of used to it all! It doesn’t really phase us or require much processing power from our brain.

For young kids, it’s a totally different story.

Every day is a new adventure. There is SO much of the world to see, experience, and learn about.

A big part of the reason why toddlers need so much sleep is so their brain can power down and process all of the new information they receive every single day.

And that’s just a NORMAL day.

When they’re at daycare and learning in a structured environment, it’s super enriching but it can become information overload after a long day.

So in addition to being physically tired and worn down, by the time you pick your toddler up from daycare he or she is mentally fried, as well.

They’re emotionally drained

Toddlers are just a big old time-bomb of emotions.

They live in the moment and flow from one big feeling to the next with relative ease compared to adults.

(Ever notice how they can be screaming like the world is ending one moment, and laughing hysterically the next? It’s impressive!)

Small moments throughout a toddler’s day can trigger big emotional ups and downs.

  • A friend stole their toy (so many tears)
  • They played a fun game in class (OMG, amazing!)
  • They didn’t like the food at lunch (super sad)
  • They saw a bird outside (LIFE IS WONDERFUL)
  • And so on and so on

Have you ever gotten really, really sad or angry, and then by the time you bounced back to feeling like your normal self you were just… kind of drained?

Imagine the life of a toddler, swinging wildly back and forth, up and down all day long.

By the end of the day, they’re fried.

And they don’t yet really have the language skills and emotional awareness to put it all into words and talk it out.

So they scream and cry. It’s totally normal.

They feel safe with you

You may be wondering…

“All that sounds fine, but they seemed totally OK until the second we were alone in the car!”

This is actually a good thing if your toddler is more upset and worse behaved around you than others.

It means they’ve probably been holding onto those tears and screams all day, and they finally feel safe enough to let them out.

I get it — it’s not super fun being the dumping ground for all of your child’s frustrations, anger, and sadness.

But it’s actually kind of a weird sign that they love and trust you the most.

So that after daycare meltdown is really… a good thing?

OK… so that’s why toddlers are often really grumpy and whiny after you pick them up from daycare.

It’s totally normal! But that doesn’t make it fun.

Now what can you do about it?

Solution #1: Fix the bedtime routine

There’s not a whole lot you can do about what happens during the day.

You can’t stop other kids from accidentally making your kid mad, and you can’t keep them from running around and wearing themselves out too much.

But you can try to make sure they’re as well-rested as possible before you send them off to school.

Try moving bedtime up just 15-30 minutes, if possible.

(It’s easier to get kids to go to bed earlier than sleep later!)

A little, tiny bit more sleep can go a long way for toddlers.

If they’re hopping out of bed at 5:30 am and jumping right into raucous playtime, so they’re worn out by the time they even get to school, consider using an alarm clock or an OK-to-wake nightlight to encourage them to sleep in or play quietly until it’s time to get up.

Solution #2: Keep stimulation low

I am so guilty of this one.

When I pick my daughter up from daycare, I like to talk to her a lot about our day, make silly jokes, and play music on the ride home that we’ll love.

But when she’s really grumpy and cranky, I think it’s sometimes better to dial the energy level in the car back a little.

Think about it. Your toddler is already:

  • Over-tired
  • Over-stimulated
  • Emotionally drained

Maybe they just need to chill in the back seat and look out the window for a few minutes.

It can help them hit the ‘reset’ button to a degree.

Solution #3: Keep your calm

Evening crankiness is 100% normal for toddlers.

So is crying, screaming, throwing tantrums, and lashing out emotionally.

Sometimes you just need to let them feel their feelings and get them all the way out.

If I’m being honest, when I say:

  • “Stop crying!”
  • “Stop crying or else you’ll have X consequence!”
  • “It’s OK sweetie you can stop crying.”
  • “Please for the love of God, stop crying.”

These things have never once worked for me in the entire time my daughter has been alive.

Those feelings have to come out and you might as well just get out of the way.

A little gentle, loving, supportive talk is good, but if your kiddo just needs to wail in the backseat on the drive home, you might be better off just letting the scenario play out.

Solution #4: Play a game in the car on the ride home

If the tears just won’t stop, a little gentle distraction never hurt.

One of our favorite things to do in the car is to play games like:

  • I Spy with My Little Eye
  • Spot the Firetruck/Van/Truck/Jeep
  • Find letters on street signs
  • Or other verbal or observational games!

I do think it’s probably a good idea to keep the energy levels and chaos in the car to a minimum, but if you don’t just want to sit there in silence listening to your toddler cry, games can be a good alternative.

You just have to get them in a different headspace, sometimes, to snap them out of it.

It’s kind of like when they’re upset at home.

Just getting them moving, outside or in a different room, is often enough to help them shake the funk.

It’s the same thing in the car.

Solution #5: Soothe them with a snack

If you’re not already bringing snacks to daycare pick up, where have you been?!

After all, you can’t cry when you’re stuffing Goldfish in your mouth!

Snacks are not only a major crowd-pleaser when it comes to kids and toddlers, they’re actually very important for a toddler’s health and well-being.

Kids have small stomachs and can’t typically eat large meals. Plus, they burn a TON of energy running around, playing, and growing.

So they need a frequent supply of nutritious calories.

A well-chosen snack in the car after daycare is both a pleasant distraction AND a cure for ‘hangriness.’

You’re probably not here for health advice, but just try to choose snacks that are at least somewhat nutritious (not candy, for example), and won’t completely spoil dinner.

Solution #6: Let them help you cook dinner

OK, so you made it through the car-ride from hell and now you’re home.

Now what?

For me, I often find that the crankiness continues at home as I’m scrambling to get dinner together before we have to start bedtime.

(There’s never enough time in the day, right?)

I think what’s going on is your toddler:

  • Missed you all day
  • Is exhausted on all fronts
  • Isn’t sure what to do if you’re busy working on dinner or other things

That’s definitely a recipe for them to backslide right into more tears and another meltdown.

I really like asking my daughter to help me make dinner. It keeps her engaged with me and occupied, and sometimes she can actually be pretty helpful!

She’s 3, so I’ll think of age-appropriate tasks for her to do like:

  • Bringing me non-breakable things from the fridge
  • Putting dirty spoons/cups in the sink
  • Stirring things
  • Pouring things
  • Getting cookware out of lower shelves
  • Throwing away boxes/wrappers/etc
  • And more

She really likes helping and it gives her something to focus on.

When I’m cooking and I ask her to play independently or find something else to do, she seems to stay crankier for longer!

If your kid is too young to help, you could easily set them up with a different activity like arts and crafts, a little screen time, or a puzzle.

Wrapping Up

Ultimately, there’s no bulletproof way to “cure” the post-daycare blues or After-School Restraint Collapse.

It’s just a normal part of toddlers being toddlers, dealing with fatigue, and learning how to express their emotions.

Mostly, you can control the way you handle it and how frustrated you let it get you.

But there are some ways to calm things down, create a less stimulating environment, and distract your child from those big feelings.

I hope those tips above have helped!

If you’ve been through this and have any good parenting hacks for the after-daycare meltdown, share them in the comments below!