Child Sleep Tip: Post-Nap Crying

by Meghan

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Big M had always been a great sleeper.  From the time she was about two weeks old, she has always happily slept on a consistent routine, both for night and daytime sleep.  As I share in my Early Childhood Sleep Series, I credit so much of this to my cousin’s life saving advice in his welcome baby care package.  When we transitioned from two naps a day down to one at around 12 months old, she took to it with relative ease.  Even making a move to a big kid bed didn’t seem to phase her. But, somewhere around 18 months, something strange started to happen.  She would wake up from great, 2-3 hour afternoon naps, not only cranky, but outright hysterical.  The post-nap crying would carry on for half an hour or more.  What could possibly be wrong?

Post-Nap Crying

What Causes Post-Nap Crying?

From birth, I had always followed the rule, “Babies always wake up happy. ” Often, especially in early infancy, infants wake up mid-nap crying because they don’t yet know how to settle back to sleep as they transition through their sleep cycle (usually about once every 45-90 minutes).  They aren’t ready to wake up, and if kept up after this wake up, will often remain cranky until their next nap.  However, if you settle them back to sleep, they will often sleep for another hour or more.

So, at 18 months, when Big M started waking up hysterical 2-3 times a week, even after a 2-3 hour nap, I thought, she must not be ready to wake up.  I started sitting with her in the rocker, with her blankie, rocking her until her heaving sobs ceased and her breathing returned to its regular rhythm.  This often could take 15 minutes, and sometimes even upwards of half an hour.  But she never went back to sleep… so it didn’t seem as though she needed more sleep.  And while I enjoyed our snuggles, with my 5 month preggo belly at the time, my lap was getting smaller by the day.

[bctt tweet=”Does your toddler wake-up from naps crying? Try this quick fix! #toddler #naps #sleep #momlife”]

As the post-nap crying continued and became more frequent, I wracked my brain to figure out what could possibly be the cause.  Nothing I googled seemed to find anything… until one day, I stumbled upon a series of messages on a Berkeley Parents Network message board.  I was not the only parent experiencing this, and it seemed to be occurring in children all around a similar age.

The one recommendation, at the urging of a poster’s pediatrician that resonated the most with me, was the reaction was driven by low blood sugar, and could be most rapidly ‘cured’ with a snack upon wake up.  I tried it that day, and it was amazing.  As soon as I offered her a snack, she immediately seized on the idea, wiped her tears away and ran downstairs to the table.

What causes low blood sugar?

When you eat, your body goes through four phases of digestion.  It begins with the ingestion of food – this is simply the act of putting food in your mouth.  Then, actual digestion begins.  First, by the mechanical chewing and swallowing of your food.  And then by the chemical processes which occur in the stomach and small intestine where digestive enzymes, including insulin produced by the pancreas, help to break food down into smaller chemical particles in preparation for the next phase of digestion – absorption.  Absorption occurs when the cells of the body absorb the smaller, chemical components created during digestion.  Lastly, your body excretes all remaining waste products during the last and final phase, elimination.

During digestion and absorption, insulin works to regulate the metabolizing of carbohydrates and fats by aiding in the absorption of glucose from the blood into the muscles and skeletal system for storage  rather than immediate use for energy.  Its production is triggered by the digestive process, and helps to regulate overall blood sugar levels in your body.  Often, right after you eat, your blood sugar rises, insulin is produced to help metabolize it, and return to your body to steady state levels.

However, if you don’t eat enough, allow too long to pass between meals, are more active than normal burning more energy than usual, you can drop below steady state levels, resulting in low blood sugar – which often leads to crankiness, fatigue, headache, hunger and more.  Think of the late afternoon slump many adults feel, which often leads you to grab a quick snack or take an afternoon coffee break.

I noticed Big M’s post-nap crying fits often occurred when we had a really busy morning.  She would eat a great lunch, sleep really hard, and be so hungry and uncomfortable when she woke up, she would be distraught instead of just being able to calmly communicate she needed something to eat.  I also noticed these fits would increase in frequency when she hit growth spurts (18 months, 2 years).  She would eat everything in sight, and still wake up  and be ravenous at every meal.

[bctt tweet=”Toddlers can suffer from low blood sugar too – recognize signs and quick fix #toddlers #naps #sleep #momlife”]

Best Snacks for Low Blood Sugar

Offering snacks high in carbohydrates, and preferably natural sugar for small children, will help quickly bring up their low blood sugar, and soothe their symptoms, which are often the cause of their post-nap crying.  Big M is partial to fruit and pretzels.  Milk and juice are great too, though we don’t do juice at our house, and prefer to eat whole fruit instead.

I try to keep snacks small, healthy, and just enough to take the edge off until the next meal.  The girls both do pretty well without a morning snack most days, but for little kids, the 5-6+ hour stretch between lunch and dinner is a long time to go without eating.

I was glad such a simple and easy remedy could bring a smile back to my little ones face.  Please note, I am not a medical professional, and extreme symptoms should always be raised with your pediatrician.

Does your toddler suffer from late afternoon low blood sugar?  Has your toddler every woken up from a nap overly distraught?  If you found this post helpful, you may also like Transitioning to a Big Kid Bed! Be sure to check out all the posts in our Sleep Series, and all our favorite tips for early childhood sleep from around the web on our Sleep board on Pinterest.

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Nikki June 19, 2019 - 8:49 pm

This was the perfect suggestion!

I am a clinical social worker and mother of 6 children. My youngest child has been waking up with intense screaming on occasion for a long while now. There were a few variables but I hadn’t considered food. She would say no to food … but after just giving her the food today I immediately saw that she needs the food, whether she recognized it or not.

Thanks again!

Baby Whisperer June 20, 2018 - 1:27 am

Having children wake up with low blood sugar can definitely be unsettling for both child and parent / caregiver but I wouldn’t recommend giving high sugar or high carbohydrates when they wake?? This just makes their blood glucose levels rise and drop more! When offering something high in carbohydrates it spikes their blood glucose only for it to drop not long after again just for them to start throwing tantrums or being unsettled again. Offer them a high fat meal before they go to bed so that when they wake they dont have low blood sugar in the first place. (Avo, cream cheese, egg, lamb chops etc 😉) I am an owner of a preschool and fortunately for us we seem to have eliminated this issue just by feeding the children the right food 🤗 Just a thought!! Wishing you all the very best!

Meghan June 20, 2018 - 8:49 am

Thank you for sharing!

Teri p March 28, 2016 - 11:42 pm

My two year old does this too. It started when she was 18 months and had virtually zero vocabulary, very stressful. I would offer her a squeeze pouch of unsweetened apple sauce or a graham cracker and that would help a lot! Now she is able to tell me-through her tears- what snack she wants which is usually a piece of fruit or cheesy crackers. By the time she is done munching she is back to her cheerful high energy self

PGPBMeghan March 29, 2016 - 8:11 am

We had exactly the same experience – starting at the same age, with limited vocabulary. Before I figured it out, she would get so upset, it would take forever to calm her down and she would be cranky the rest of the afternoon! So glad to find simple solutions!

Alison Nielsen March 1, 2016 - 5:27 pm

So since this could be low blood sugar is anyone concerned with diabetes? Or is it just related to a more active child? My son would have these meltdowns but I decided to remove his nap and move his bedtime to be earlier. Obviously not more nap meltdowns and minimal morning meltdowns. Though if he does wake up annoyed he usually requests milk. He’s 3. Just wondering

PGPBMeghan March 1, 2016 - 6:02 pm

I’m not a medical professional, but I believe diabetes is more commonly associated with high blood sugar levels, due to the body’s inability to properly metabolize it. Kids this age grow rapidly and are bundles of energy! They need the caloric intake (and sleep) to keep pace with it! And 3 is pretty normal to give up naps – that’s when my oldest gave hers up too. She still has ‘quiet time’ everyday, and will occasionally still nap (sometimes everyday for a couple weeks when she’s hitting a growth spurt), but usually just plays or reads quietly in her room while her siblings nap.

Beck February 20, 2016 - 11:20 am

Ha! Yes. Took me too long to figure this out, too. Now I just hand him a snack when he wakes up. Ahhhhh.

p.s. I love Berkeley Parents Network! And your blog!

PGPBMeghan February 21, 2016 - 7:13 am

It’s amazing how it’s often the simplest solutions that elude us the most! Thanks so much and thanks for reading 🙂

Liz February 15, 2016 - 6:19 pm

What about those toddlers that won’t eat upon wake up? I have a 2 and a half year old that does this. She’ll nap for about 2 hours and then scream til bedtime. Most of the time that she does this, she will NOT touch food. She will throw a hissy fit. Fling anything I offer her. It might be low blood sugar, but she WILL NOT eat when she starts this. Then what?

PGPBMeghan February 16, 2016 - 7:00 am

Have you tried immediately coming into her room when she wakes up with water, milk or watered down juice in a cup? That may be enough to keep her calm until you get her to the table with snack already laid out. I definitely hear you – once they get worked up, it is so hard to calm them down. Every child is different – my second child has never had this issue, but it was definitely a problem for my oldest, and so many others out there.

Alternatively, you may just have to feel out the best way to deal with her temperament. My oldest is super emotional, and always has been. Sometimes, I find encouraging her to “take a deep breath, and count to 4” – thank you Daniel Tiger – helps. And if not, I tell her I’m going to have to leave her in her room/crib/bed until she can calm down, as often the more I try to help, the worse it gets.

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[…] Child Sleep Tip: Post-Nap Crying […]

Mindi October 31, 2015 - 10:53 pm

Yes! I’m so glad you wrote about this… it took me forever to figure it out for my middle and it was so heartbreaking and stressful every day! Once I figured out that it seemed to be related to low blood sugar, I would take a piece of cheese with me to go get him out of bed because it was neat enough that he could eat it while cuddling in my lap. Then I’d follow it up with a snack of fruit once he was feeling a little better and able to sit at the table. It never seemed to defer his appetite for dinner, it was clearly just what his body needed at that time of day.
I’m glad for the reminder too since his little brother is just 13 months and I had forgotten all about this phase that his brother went through!

PGPBMeghan November 2, 2015 - 12:57 am

Sometimes the best parenting help is just knowing you aren’t alone! If it helps at all, my second seems to have skipped this phase entirely!

Clare's Little Tots September 21, 2015 - 5:53 pm

I’ve cared for a few kids that have done this. One girl in particular was just awful that I dreaded when she would wake up. I never put it down to hunger. I no longer look after her however I’ll be sure to try this out next time I get a post nap grumbler.

PGPBMeghan September 21, 2015 - 6:57 pm

It definitely solved it for us – my younger daughter doesn’t seem to have the same issue though.

Nicole Schwarz March 10, 2015 - 4:24 pm

Thanks for this advice! Like you, I had a “babies wake up happy” mindset. However, I just got my fussy baby up from her nap…she’s been crying a lot after her afternoon nap. I’m going to try the snack today and see if it helps. Thanks!

PGPBMeghan March 11, 2015 - 8:28 am

Once I figured it out, it seemed so logical – and more importantly, it helped tremendously! Good luck!


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