He might not even know why he's crying.

Sudden Unexplained Crying in Toddlers

by Kathryn Walsh

When a scraped knee is the cause of your toddler's tears, you know what to do. When she bursts into tears for no apparent reason, though, you might feel helpless or even frustrated. Without a magic wand at your disposal, you might not be able to pinpoint the exact cause of her cries, but trying a few simple things will help you figure out whether she's hurt or if a hug is all she needs.

1. Potential Physical Causes

In a toddler, fatigue and pain are two of the most common reasons for tears. Imagine how you feel when you're sleep deprived: even the most minor of irritations can make you feel like crying. It's the same for your toddler, except he has even fewer coping skills than you do. If he's not getting enough sleep, something as small as a stubbed toe or empty bottle could inspire a sudden meltdown. Internal physical pain might come on suddenly, too. Abdominal pain could be caused by constipation, ear and throat pain can be caused by infections, and other body pain could be caused by a sprain or strain of a muscle. A toddler might also be in pain due to teething, especially between his first and second birthdays.

2. Dealing With Physical Problems

Look for other clues to determine whether your toddler's tears are caused by physical problems. If she seems to melt down at the same time each day, she might be overly tired. Try increasing her nap time by 30 minutes. If she hasn't passed a bowel movement in a day or more, try adding more water and fiber to her diet in case she's suffering from constipation. A teething toddler should get relief from a teething toy and hard, cold foods, though her doctor might also recommend pain relievers. If she's pulling at her ears, seems to be having a hard time hearing or has fluid leaking from her ear, she likely has an ear infection and needs to see a doctor; she also needs medical attention if she seems to be limping or cries when she puts pressure on a particular body part. If you just can't figure out what's wrong, take her to the pediatrician.

3. Potential Emotional Causes

Any number of emotional upsets could inspire a sudden burst of tears. Mood swings are common in toddlers; crying spells and tantrums are a normal part of how young children deal with their frustrations. He could be responding to something external like being told "no" by a caretaker, or he could simply be frustrated by some task he's trying and failing to complete. Separation anxiety is another common cause of emotional distress in a toddler, and it can come on suddenly in a child who previously had no such issues, especially if there have been recent changes in his life like a new sibling or a new day care. Your toddler's cries might begin once he even suspects one or both of his parents or guardians is leaving, and he'll probably cling to or reach for you as he cries.

4. Dealing With Emotional Problems

If her tears are caused by emotional issues, maintaining a strong attachment to her, setting boundaries and encouraging her exploration can all help her build the confidence she needs to soothe herself. If she's frustrated or feeling separation anxiety, taking a moment to snuggle her can help before you set her on her way. Giving her some explanation of what's happening to her can also help when she's upset. For instance, if she's crying because she was told "no," say, "It's not safe to climb on the railing because you might fall. Try climbing on the stairs instead," or talk to her about why you have to leave her with a babysitter and when you'll be back. In time, she'll learn to deal with disappointments without tears.

Photo Credits

  • Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images