Cranky after a nap: How to help your child wake up happier

Cranky after a nap: How to help your child wake up happier
I love when my toddler naps: we get a break, he’s rested, and there’s no pressure to bump up his bedtime. But the moment right after a nap? That can be a challenge some days.

I was talking to a friend who has a son around the same age as mine. “I love when N wakes up from a nap,” she began. “I’ll usually hear him talking or singing right after he wakes up, so that when I walk in I’ll find him sitting up and smiling at me.” Smiling?!

Here’s what can happen at our house: We’ll hear our toddler either start whimpering or flat-out screaming at the top of his lungs when he wakes up. We rush in with his milk in hand, and that will placate him for maaaaybe the thirty seconds it takes him to down the whole thing. He’ll either demand more, or proceed to crying right away and complain. Sometimes he’ll say he wants to go back to sleep but protests when we make arrangements for him to do so.

The funny thing is that he doesn’t wake up cranky in the mornings; he actually wakes up like my friend’s son; talking, singing and yes, smiling. Apparently grouchiness is reserved for mid-day. I don’t blame him—I tend to feel out of sorts when I wake up from a nap and can imagine that he feels the same. Either way, my husband and I have gotten better with helping our little guy wake up happier—and less cranky—after his naps:

  • Have milk and snacks ready. Okay, so this didn’t exactly solve the problem by itself because clearly he can still wake up cranky even when handed a cup of milk, but I imagine he may be even more cantankerous if we were to withhold his beloved drink.
  • Don’t change his room too much. I remember we would walk in to his bedroom and one right after another brighten up the room for wake-up time: pull the curtains back, turn off his fan and start playing with him. It’s easy to do this; after all, we’ve been sitting out in the living room wide awake in bright sunlight, talking and completely coherent. Napping kids, not so much. They need more time to transition to awake time. Now, we’ll turn off his fan and pull the curtains back just a tad—and that’s it.
  • Along the same lines, keep conversation to a minimum. Not only would we abruptly pull the curtains back, we would start talking to him right away, animatedly and everything. Again, with a bit of empathy, we could see that he clearly wasn’t ready to jump in on conversation, answer questions or even hear our voices just yet.
  • Give him time to wake up. Another mistake we did was rushing to our toddler the minute we heard even the slightest rustle or whimper from his room. I found that when we gave him a few minutes or even seconds to compose himself and realize that he’s awake, he’s in a much better mood when we walk in. Of course if he wakes up hysterical as if he were frightened from a dream then we rush in, but for softer sounds, we give him a few moments to wake up.
  • Offer a comfort item. Our little guy sleeps with his lovey, but we make sure to find him in his bed in case he’s not holding on to him. We’ve also given him a favorite toy or book that he can play with or read on his bed.
  • Soothe. When all else fails, just be there for your little one. Assuming she’s not pushing you away or making unrealistic demands (a potential tantrum trigger), sometimes all she needs is a good rub on her back or to sit on your lap.
  • Expect the inevitable. If your child was grouchy before the nap, he’s likely to be grouchy after. Since my toddler isn’t exactly thrilled at having to stop his midday activities to go to sleep (he’s probably thinking, “Nap? Booooring!”), he tends to fuss and cry before a nap. When this happens, almost always does he wake up just as cranky, if not more. I’ve learned to accept this fact because I know he’ll get over it eventually, and the rest his nap offered is usually much needed.
  • Realize that this happens to the best of us. Like I mentioned, I’m not exactly chipper the minute I wake up from a nap. Since naps tend to be short, we don’t get the full deep sleep cycle that night time affords. When you’re ready to lose your cool, try to put yourself in his shoes and understand that it’s perfectly normal to wake up cranky sometimes.

As with anything with kids, nothing is ever guaranteed. Just today, we spent 45 minutes consoling a cranky toddler after a long nap. It was just one of those days. But with a bit of comfort, more subdued transition and a ton of empathy, we can help our babies and toddlers wakes up happier and less cranky after a nap—and keep ourselves a bit more sane.

How do you handle your kids when they’re cranky after a nap?

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18 thoughts on “Cranky after a nap: How to help your child wake up happier

  1. Thank you for writing this blog. I relate to everything you write and appreciate that you put so much effort and time into a new article everyday! You’re amazing to say the least! Today’s article was right on yhe mark as our 19 month old sometimes does this, in fact he did today, woke up with big crocodile tears. My husband stayed with him on the chair in his room and just rubbed his back while our little man just lay on his chest. Afterwards he wanted to lie in the lounge with a blanket for 20mins… Go figure some days they just love to chillax 🙂

  2. Our daughter is unpredictable after naps. Sometimes she wakes up ready to conquer the world and other times she wakes up terribly grumpy. For a while giving her a smoothie when she woke up was a great transition. But she got tired of those I guess and we were back to the drawing board. She seems to like if we have something a little more planned out in the afternoon.

  3. I thought only my kid was grumpy after a nap. What a revelation. I pretty much do some of the things you’ve mentioned, but most of the time, if she decides to be grumpy, then she be grumpy and there’s no stopping her until she suddenly switches gears to happy kid again (which is the weirdest transition ever — one second grumpy, another second giggling? crazy kid). : )

  4. Love your tips! Sometimes a toddler is cranky when he wakes up in the middle of a sleep cycle…especially if it has only been a 30 to 45 minute nap. If that is the case, try comforting back to sleep. Toddlers have a difficult time transitioning in any activity, from play to rest, from rest to play, from sleep to awake and from awake to sleep! Part of being 2!!

    • I notice that mine can wake up prematurely and isn’t ready to be up yet. While we’ve never been successful at getting him back to sleep, simply leaving the room as is has helped a ton! He’ll usually just lay in bed semi awake and that has been enough to temper his grouchiness. Thanks for adding this tip!

  5. Since my son is still nursing that’s how he transitions to wakefulness morning or afternoon. It works for us and I don’t have to deal with any wake-up grumpiness, but if I have a second child I don’t imagine I’ll have 20 to 45 minutes to quietly nurse him or her awake every time while needing to take care of a very active Eli as well. Eli definitely has his share of luxuries being the first born!

  6. my son never had issues with cranky-waking but my twins did! I like all your advice but I think it’s worth a try just to let him be for a while. I was running in to the twins as soon as they started whimpering because I didn’t want one to wake the other. I found that they ended up having more trouble transitioning than when I just left them alone! In the mornings one wakes usually 30 mintues before her sister and if I go and get her she’s a cranker-puss but if I leave her she might cry for a minute (usually less if at all) and then she’ll lay in her crib and play or sing. And (bonus) she doesn’t wake her sister up because they’re both used to the dynamic after being together for almost 2 years!

  7. Baguette has never been a good napper. For a while, the only place she would nap at home was on the sofa bed in the living room. But she often woke up cranky and needing to be held, and then she’d drift in and out of cranky consciousness for the better part of another hour.

    Then we started putting her in our bed to nap. It’s darker and quieter there, and while she may whimper when she turns over, she puts herself back to sleep and has been waking up happier.

  8. A great post as always! Maybe I am lucky (or just lazy!) but I made a rule ages ago, that I will not go into his room until I can hear him babbling away on the monitor. I think when he was younger, and would cry during a nap, I would rush in and try to comfort him, which usually just woke him up and made him even grumpier. I now will wait and he either stops crying and falls back asleep or starts playing in his crib. Then I know it’s safe to go in! 🙂

  9. I am so lucky that Oster is one of those kids who loves waking up from a nap. He sits or stands up in his crib waiting for someone to come and get him. When my husband or I arrive, Oster is grinning from ear to ear waiting for us to pick him up. Sometimes he will want to get on the floor to play right away and other times he points to his door because he wants to go downstairs to see the dogs.

    His room is pitch black (minus the little sunlight peaking through his blinds and curtains), we have a fan running on low speed and we put on white noise to drown out the sounds my loud pups make while he’s sleeping. I hope he continues this happiness.

  10. Livi just recently started to do this, no matter how long she napped. It used to be that she was up and running the second she woke up. But lately she wants to be held for at least 20 minutes before she is ready for the afternoon.
    Great tips, thanks for sharing.

  11. I needed this post. My son just about always wakes up cranky. The milk suggestion is the best – it’s about the only thing that seems to keep Lane from jumping from crankiness to full-on hysterics. I’ve noticed with my son, he calms down faster if I hold him and take a brief walk outside. He gets to be close to me and also feel the wind and sun on his cheeks, which seems to distract him from his irritability. It’s not always convenient, but it definitely helps!

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