There was a week recently where my 4-year-old daughter kept waking up crying.
I’m talking INCONSOLABLE, just out of the blue, for no reason.
Nothing specific happened to set her off, she just woke up sad and cranky and hysterical, started bawling, and couldn’t seem to explain why.
This happened 4 or 5 days out of the entire week. My wife and I became extremely concerned.
What should you do if your toddler always wakes up crying every day, and why are they screaming or cranky every morning?
Thankfully, our period of terror came to an end. I’m not sure if we specifically did anything to solve the problem, but we did try a number of things that I’ll share in this article, including:
- Getting to sleep a little earlier
- Talking about what we were all excited for about the next day (before bed)
- Coming up with a new morning routine
After the fact, I consulted a few experts on the subject.
According to Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, pediatric behavioral sleep psychologist and author of Become Your Child’s Sleep Coach, this phenomenon can happen for a number of reasons. But one of the biggest is that whatever comfort or assistance the child may have needed to fall asleep in the first place is missing when they wake up, and that sets them off.
Let’s dive in a little deeper. I’ll explain how we worked through this problem in my house and go into some more detail about what the experts have to say.
What the experts say about a toddler that’s hysterical in the morning
I really wanted to get to the bottom of this problem.
(It’s extremely common for 2 and 3 and even 4-year-olds to wake up crying in the morning.)
Even though it’s not plaguing our household anymore (at least, at the moment), I still consider it somewhat of an unsolved mystery.
So first I reached out to Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg — she’s a behavioral sleep psychologist that specializes in older kids and the sleep troubles that accompany toddlerhood.
Here’s what she had to say:
“The most common reason a child has a recurring problem with waking up grumpy, crying and inconsolable is that whatever they had at bedtime to help them fall asleep is ‘missing’ when the child wakes up (as all kids do, 4-5 times a night).
“In other words, if a parent provides some “assistance” to get a child to sleep in the first place at bedtime (lies down with the child or reads them to sleep or rubs their back until they are almost in dreamland, and so on), and then leaves when the child is deeply asleep, the child will almost always wake up in the way you describe (various shades of unhappy!).”
This makes total sense!
If you’re having to spend an enormous amount of time comforting and cuddling your child to sleep, and then they wake up alone, that’s bound to make them scared, confused, and upset.
It’s also important to consider if you have a nightlight, sound machine, or other soothing device going in the room at night that shuts off at some point.
When your toddler wakes up in pitch black and his nightlight is nowhere to be seen, for example, it could be really jarring for him.
As a temporary fix, you can apply some extra comfort in the morning — preferably before the panic sets in if you can get to your toddler before they wake up on their own.
As a longer-term fix, you should work on teaching them to self-soothe during sleep.
I also reached out to Danielle Daure’, a Board Certified and Licensed Behavior Analyst who specializes in working with children on sleep and potty-training issues.
She brings up an important point: It’s crucial, if the behavior is ongoing, to rule out any medical concerns like routine sicknesses or even sleep apnea.
If the “waking up grumpy” problem persists, you’ll probably want to see a pediatrician.
She also recommends (after ruling out medical reasons) trying to incent your toddler with a behavior chart:
Wake up calm, earn a sticker! Earn 5 stickers, earn a prize! For example.
So that’s the expert consensus!
Those tips should help, but in case you want a little more, here are a few reasons we came up with (and what we tried to fix them) when we were going through this nightmare ourselves.
Reason #1 – They’re tired and sleeping poorly
Like all of us, toddlers can “wake up on the wrong side of the bed” when they’re too tired.
There are a number of related reasons a toddler (or anyone, really) could wake up still tired, like:
- Getting to bed too late
- Waking up too early
- Sleeping poorly
- Napping too much or too little during the day
As you can see, that’s a lot of different levers to pull and variables to try to influence!
But the bottom line here is that a major reason for your toddler’s morning grumpiness could be a lack of quality sleep.
According to Men’s Health, a lack of sleep can cause increased activity in our brain’s amygdala, where we control our anger and other negative emotions.
What you have to remember about toddlers is that they feel a lot of the same feelings we do, they just can’t regulate them very well yet, plus they have trouble expressing them.
So when they’re a little grumpy from a bad night of sleep, it can quickly spiral into a full-blown meltdown.
How to fix it: Get them to bed earlier (and tweak the night time routine)
This was our first hypothesis and the first thing we tried to get a handle on with our daughter.
Bedtime had been creeping later and later, and this was a clear sign that we needed to reign it in.
I know, it’s easier said than done!
We’re two busy parents who both work, so it feels like we don’t get much time with our daughter in the evenings — we weren’t thrilled to cut it short.
But in the name of having a better morning, we decided to just dial bedtime back 15 minutes or so and see if that helped.
Again, some of the stuff we tried definitely correlated with the problem going away, but I can’t say for sure what did the trick.
But if your toddler isn’t sleeping well, this should help.
You might also want to try some thick, dark true blackout curtains (Amazon link… I was really pleasantly surprised at the price of this set considering how good the reviews are) to keep morning light from seeping in too early.
Toddlers have trouble going back to sleep once they’ve been woken up, so this could be part of the problem if your kid’s room gets a lot of sun.
Reason #2 – They just need some comforting in the morning
It’s possible that your toddler just needs a little bit of a safety net to process how they’re feeling in the mornings.
A lot of parents I’ve heard from online say they had success going into their toddler’s bedroom before they woke up and gently waking them up with some snuggles and a soothing voice.
This is especially true if you have to comfort them a lot at night to get them to fall asleep, per Dr. Schneeberg.
Waking up with you versus waking up alone would be a lot less jarring.
Now, this isn’t really a permanent solution and you’ll want to work on teaching your toddler to self-soothe and wake up on his or her own, but this might be a decent way to stop the screaming!
How to fix it: Talk the night before about they’re excited to do the next day
Waking our daughter up before she woke up on her own didn’t really work for us.
(That just makes her grumpy, too. She gets that from her old man.)
But we did have some success with having a quick conversation with her about why the next day would be a good day.
What was she excited about?
What cool stuff would she get to do when she woke up?
Was there anything we could prepare that would help her have a better morning?
These simple conversations definitely seemed to have an impact on her mood upon waking.
(Pssst, if you like any of these ideas, you might dig my science-back guide on how to be a better dad.)
Reason #3 – They’re ready for a new morning routine
This is going to be a little vague, but it’s definitely possible there’s just SOMETHING about your toddler’s morning routine that’s not sitting right with them.
It might be needing some comfort in the morning (see above), but it could be something else entirely.
Maybe they’re ready for a toddler bed, or ready to move from their toddler bed to a big kid bed.
Maybe they want some more responsibility in the morning. Different breakfast foods.
If what you’re doing isn’t working (and is causing meltdowns), maybe try switching it up and asking your toddler for input on creating a better morning routine for everyone.
How to fix it: Tweak the morning routine (and give them a job to do)
I can’t really say for sure if there’s a cause and effect relationship here, but there was definitely some kind of inflection point after our daughter’s really awful week of waking up crying.
After coming up with lots of different ideas for what we would do in the morning when she woke up, she started really attacking the day.
She used to sluggishly wake up, cry for us to come get her, come downstairs to cuddle and watch cartoons, etc.
Now she comes down the stairs on her own, often fully dressed or at least carrying her outfit for the day (which she now chooses).
She’ll also usually bring anything she wants to put in her backpack for daycare, like her blanket, a stuffed animal, and a small book.
She is READY TO ROLL now when she wakes up, and I’m now the one caught trying to keep up!
I can’t take too much credit and say we forced her to do this and it worked, but it definitely seems like she was just ready for a more grown-up routine in the morning.
A note on night terrors
We also considered the possibility that our daughter was having night terrors close to when she woke up in the morning.
In fact, I’m almost positive she did have one once — though it was in the middle of the night.
Night terrors are not the same as nightmares.
They’re episodes where a person usually remains asleep, but will have incredible outbursts of fear, screaming, and crying without waking up.
When our daughter had a night terror a few months back, it was HORRIFYING. We thought something was seriously wrong and were seconds from calling 911.
She was crying hysterically and was completely out of it, unable to respond to our voice or open her eyes.
Thankfully, the episode passed and she went right back to sleep.
Night terrors are pretty common in toddlers (much moreso than adults), and peak around age 3 according to Dr. Schneeberg.
She suggests, if your child is having night terrors regularly, to gently wake him or her about 15 minutes before the time the episodes typically begin — this is called a scheduled awakening — and then soothe them back to sleep after the time has passed.
When your toddler wakes up crying, it can really set your day off on the wrong foot. When it happens EVERY DAY for a period of time, it can make life downright miserable.
Hopefully, the phase will pass on its own before too long.
But you should definitely rule out any medical issues by seeing your pediatrician if the problem persists.
Outside of that, feel free to try different comforting techniques and tweaks tot he bedtime/waking schedule to see what works.
For us, the crying episodes were quickly followed by our daughter waking up super ready to attack the day. I think maybe it was just an important growth moment for her to work through.
Today? Life is good.
She comes down the stairs on her own, often dressed for school (by herself), ready to pack her backpack, and almost always with a smile on her face.
Meanwhile, I’m the one trying desperately to wake up!