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Why Do Toddlers Wake Up Crying?

author image Diana Rodriguez
Diana Rodriguez is a Louisville, Kentucky-based full-time freelance writer who specializes in health and real-estate writing. Since 2008 her numerous articles have appeared on various news and health websites. She also specializes in custom Web content for a variety of businesses. She has degrees in journalism and French from Miami University of Ohio.
Why Do Toddlers Wake Up Crying?
Night terrors or separation anxiety might be making your toddler wake up screaming. Photo Credit: GeorgeSe/iStock/Getty Images

During a baby's earliest months and even in the first year of life, parents can expect their children to wake in the night crying for food, comfort, a diaper change or a pacifier. The first night that a baby sleeps all night is a glorious one for sleep-deprived parents. But their sweet dreams can be shattered later when development and anxiety interrupt a toddler's sleep and cause night waking and crying.

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Night Terrors

Toddlers sometimes wake in the night screaming and crying because of night terrors. These occur in between sleep cycles and aren't actual dreams or nightmares, according to the Nemours Foundation. Night terrors happen as the brain transitions between sleep cycles, which can cause a fear reaction in a toddler. A toddler waking from a night terror often can't be consoled for as long as 30 minutes, says the American Academy of Family Physicians, and could scream and cry dramatically. Night terrors are most common in children between the ages of 3 and 8.

Anxiety Awakenings

A toddler's world is constantly changing and seeming bigger each day -- and often, more frightening. Separation anxiety can trigger night waking and plenty of tears, as your toddler could develop fears about being away from mommy and daddy that affect his sleep. Toddlers younger than age 3 or 4 don't yet feel comfortable or secure when they are not in the presence of a parent, notes the University of Michigan. A child can be anxious about potty training or a new sibling who seems to be taking up a lot of parent time and attention. Your toddler might be afraid of the dark and need a nightlight to ease his fears.


Night waking and crying can indicate discomfort or even an illness. Your child could be too warm or chilly, or her pajamas might be uncomfortable or itchy. Check the room temperature and that your child's sleep clothing is appropriate and fits comfortably. Ear infections are painful and can cause a toddler to wake screaming in pain in the night. Check for signs of fever and other indications of illness, such as congestion or complaints of pain or discomfort.


Help your toddler get a good night's rest with a consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine. Make sure that your toddler sleeps enough, both overnight and during naps. The University of Michigan notes that toddlers typically need a total of 12 to 13 1/2 hours of rest each day. Help your child wind down for bed with a warm bath, books, songs or other routines that help him get comfortable. Offer your toddler a "lovey" -- a blanket or stuffed animal to comfort him if he's sad.

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