At least eleven times a day, I wonder what exactly is causing my toddler's irritability or meltdown. She's learning new words by the day, but connecting her emotions or feelings to those words is taking a little longer than I anticipated, and what she needs or wants remains a mystery much of the time. That's why figuring out whether she needs a snack or a nap is such a dilemma. If you're in the same boat, you need to brush up on these signs your toddler is tired, not hungry because toddlers can be so tricky to read.
If your toddler is fussy and crying outside of meal or snack times, or they turn down food they otherwise enjoy, those are signs that your toddler is really tired instead of hungry. Raising Children, an Australian parenting site, broke it down for us struggling parents: "Grizzling and crying can mean your child is tired, but it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between tired grizzling and hungry grizzling." They suggested this simple tip for parents wondering what to offer their struggling kiddo: "If your baby has had a feed within the last two hours and is ... cranky, she’s probably tired."
The same goes for toddlers. If your kid has eaten recently but still isn't settling, it's a good indication that he needs to take a time out with his bed for a little while. Here are a few other signs that can help you decipher your toddler's grumps.
If your little one is having a meltdown at a time he doesn't normally eat, that can signal that their fussiness is caused by needing to sleep or rest. One suggestion made by the Women's and Children's Health Network that can make mealtime more streamlined: "Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time." That way you can offer something to eat at the first sign of hunger or fatigue.
If your little one doesn't ever like broccoli, that's not a good test of whether she is tired instead of hungry. But if you offer a handful of granola or apple slices that your toddler would typically gobble up and she balks, her grouchiness might be down to tiredness instead. Registered dietician Natalia Stasenko wrote on Real Mom Nutrition that toddlers who get increasingly cranky at mealtime might need to have their dinner served 30 minutes earlier so that they aren't too tired to eat their meal.
If your kid is bouncing off the walls, you might be tempted to think they need to go run out their extra energy at the park. Counterintuitively, if your toddler is acting hyper or giddy, he might be overtired. Sleep expert Dana Olberman of Sleepsense explained that little ones can get wound up when they should be winding down, "Logic dictates that a child who’s not getting enough sleep should be sluggish and lethargic, but the opposite is, in fact, much more likely. Kids get into a very hyperactive state when they’re exhausted."
While it's possible that your toddler is waking in the night and asking for Cheerios because she's actually hungry, it's also possible that your little one is waking because she's overtired. Among other problems, overtiredness in children can cause night waking, according to BabySleep101. You can give them the Cheerios, but you might want to consider putting your toddler to bed a little earlier.
The Royal Society for the Welfare of Mothers and Babies in Australia pointed out that when a toddler is overtired they can show some curious signs that you wouldn't necessarily associate with needing sleep. For instance, if your little one is overtired, they might act bored with toys that would usually keep their interest. If your toddler seems bored and is asking for snacks, she could just be tired instead.
This is perhaps the trickiest of all the toddler signs: irritability. If your toddler is irritable, he or she could be hungry or tired. Parents said, "Some toddlers tucker out within three or four hours of awakening in the morning," so if your little one has been up for that long and is starting to melt down even after having meals, a nap might well be in order.
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