The crib to toddler bed transition can be pretty scary for parents. You are essentially taking away the boundaries that have kept your child in bed. And if done too soon, your child could go from sleeping like a pro to sleeping like a newborn again, with frequent wake ups. And good-bye to the days when you can let your child fuss for a few minutes and fall back asleep because now your child will just get up and come get you. But when you have the right tools and information, the switch from crib to bed can be smooth, exciting, and fun as your little dreamer is getting bigger, becoming more independent, and earning more responsibility.
Today I am sharing the criteria I use to know when it is a good idea to make the switch or if you will be better off waiting a bit longer. Plus, I will share how to make the transition as smooth as possible. After all, sleep is seriously the best.
Your Child is Not Ready to Switch to a Toddler Bed if…
…he is not sleeping through the night. If your child is struggling to sleep with the safety and security of a crib, I can guarantee that sleep will only go downhill when you switch to a big kid bed. Please trust me when I tell you, moving your baby out of the crib and onto a mattress on the floor will not improve sleep. It will make it worse. The only exception to this rule would be the family that wants to co-sleep. If you are not interested in co-sleeping, and your child is not sleeping through the night, then stay in the crib. And instead try this post about why your little dreamer isn’t sleeping through the night.
…your main motive for switching your toddler is to free up your crib for another child or because you want to see your little dreamer as cute as can be sleeping in his new big bed. Both of these reasons have nothing to do with the development and needs of your child who is about to have his world turned upside down. The child may very well be excited about something new, but when the excitement wears off (or earlier), you will end up with lots and lots of wrinkles to iron out. Instead put your new baby in the pac n play for a few months (or a year!) and learn how to curb your excitement until your little dreamer is ready!
…she is climbing out of the crib. Yep, you heard me right. I know everywhere else you will read that if your toddler is crawling out it is time to switch. Just hear me out. I have talked with parents who have a 16 month old who is crawling out of her crib, and there are just a few things I would try before switching to a toddler bed. First make sure your crib is on the absolute lowest setting. Second considering putting the crib mattress directly on the floor, creating even more space between the top of the mattress and the top of the crib sides. Third, make sure your child is wearing something that prevents or delays the child from being able to crawl out. Sleep sacks often work wonders (just start wearing them early!). I even had a client who sewed the sleep sack tighter so her daughter’s legs would not be able to stretch far enough to climb out of the crib. Genius, I tell you! Or perhaps you would like to try a crib tent to help your little dreamer stay put. If your child does crawl out, and you try one of these or another method to keep your baby in the crib, make sure you monitor your child very closely to prevent any injury. And if none of these tips help your child to stay in the crib, then yes it might be time to switch. A child who is capable and willing to climb out of the crib is no longer in a safe environment, and it is time to switch. Hopefully the above tips help to at least lengthen out how long your little dreamer is able to sleep in the crib.
…your child is not yet 3 years old. Two year olds lack impulse control, and a child with low impulse control who gets put into a bed will have a hard time staying in bed while falling asleep and throughout the night. As children get closer and closer to the age of three, their impulse control improves. Not perfect, but much better! Plus, it is much easier to motivate through rewards once a child hits three. Some children even prefer and need those boundaries well after the age of three. If your child is sleeping well in the crib, age alone may not be a good enough reason to make the switch. After all, if it ain’t broken don’t fix it.
…your child is potty training. Potty training is a big milestone for a toddler. It requires responsibility, cooperation, and learning. Your best bet at getting any of those from your toddler is to have a well-rested toddler. Potty training and transition to a toddler bed at the same time will likely overwhelm your child and decrease overall amount of sleep, resulting in a difficult toddler. I am not sure it matters whether you potty train first or switch to a toddler bed first. But spacing them out will make a large impact on the success of both. It may also be helpful to remember that many children take longer to potty train at night; therefore, there may be no need for your toddler to be out of a crib when initially potty training.
If you find that both you and your child are ready for a toddler bed there are some important steps to follow that will make this process much smoother (which means you’ll actually still get to sleep at night).
Set Up the Bed
First, pick a toddler bed that will work for your needs and set up in your child’s room well before you are planning to make the switch. Let your child get used to this bed, play on this bed, and get out all his curiosity before he will actually get to sleep in the bed. You can begin to prep him by telling him that soon he will get to sleep in that bed all night long!
Create a New Boundary
You will also want to decide how you will create a new boundary for your child once your remove the safety and security provided by the crib. Essentially you are making the entire bedroom the crib. You will want to want to make sure the entire room is 100% safe for a toddler. All furniture should be secured to walls. Any and all loose objects should be safe for a toddler to use and play with unsupervised. A video monitor should be installed out of reach. Finally, create a strong boundary between your child’s bedroom and the rest of the house. You may consider using a gate to create that boundary. If you have already been closing the door you could continue to do this. Even though you may think your child will stay in their bed all night and you don’t need this boundary, I assure that in the moment you least expect it, your child will crawl out of bed, leave the room, and enter your room. I also promise you it only takes one night to start a bad habit like this. I urge you to create a simple boundary.
Originally, I closed the door in my children’s bedrooms when they have switched to toddler beds since that is what I would do when they were in cribs. Eventually they have all asked me to leave the door open. It is usually around this age (2.5-3.5 years) that children will begin to want some light when they go to bed, or want the door slightly open. Many parents think this occurs because the child is scared. I don’t think this is the case, and I will have to discuss why in another blog post. Regardless, when my children begin asking for the door to be left open I oblige. But before I leave their door open, we have a nice little talk about the expectations I have around their door being open. I tell them that they can leave their room one time if they need to go potty (or need something else, but I don’t necessarily give them other ideas of why they might need to leave). Remember, that prior to opening their door they weren’t leaving at all, so giving them one chance seems pretty generous of me! Then I tell them if they leave the room again, I will have to shut their door. That first night be prepared to shut the door. And if by some miracle it doesn’t happen that first night, it will happen soon. And if you don’t follow through on what you told your child you would do, well then, your child has no reason to believe any of your rules and will continue to leave the room multiple times and throughout the night.
Start at Nighttime
If you are lucky enough to still have naps happening, make sure you start your child sleeping in the toddler bed at bedtime. The need to sleep is so much greater at night, and if your little one is on an age-appropriate schedule, she will fall asleep much easier with the excitement of a new bed than she would at naptime.
On the night that you plan to make the transition, plan to have your little dreamer to bed about 15 minutes earlier than normal. Naturally he’s going to be excited about his new bed and new freedom. Once you tuck him in and leave the room, he is going to get up and explore, experience his new freedom, and then hopefully get tired and fall asleep in his bed and not on the floor, though that might happen too! And if it does, please resist the urge to put him in bed. Let him sleep wherever he chooses to fall asleep. He will figure out his bed is more comfortable on his own and get the hang of it, I promise.
You may not need to jump to rewards right away. Wait and see how your child does. Some children really are a dream when they transition, and if that is the case, you can save this little resource for later. If your child is struggling to fall asleep within with all the new freedom that comes from a toddler bed, I would first consider using rewards. I tell my children that as long as they can go to sleep without me needing to shut the door, and they stay quiet so I don’t have to come back up, they will get a piece of gum in the morning. My kids are wildly obsessed with gum, and we have yet to have gum in the hair or carpet, so I am riding this train ‘till it bites me! We also use gum sweetened with Xylitol, which is good for their teeth, so I think it is a win-win. Obviously, you can choose whatever reward will motivate your child. A sticker chart is a great way to work towards a larger reward. Remember that your children will be only be motivated by something that they don’t get very often. Gum only comes out when they have gone to bed at night. If I were to give gum later in the day for fun then it is unlikely that would motivate my children. It almost sounds silly to mention but is something that comes up often enough with clients that I feel the need to mention it.
This wouldn’t be a true blog post if I don’t mention the need to be consistent, now would it? But seriously, once you commit to your child sleeping in the toddler bed, have a plan and be consistent, and your child will get better and better. Having limits and boundaries, routines and schedules, all help children feel safe, secure, and in control.
If you notice your child is still struggling after about two weeks, it is likely the transition was either made too soon or the child may be confused because there is not a solid plan or consistency. Usually, in these cases the child is communicating to you that he is not ready for that much freedom by not staying in his room (before he falls asleep or after). You may consider finding a way to increase the boundaries and consequentially the security he feels in his room. If the entire bedroom is too much freedom, then consider creating a boundary on the toddler bed. One way to do this is with a toddler tent. The child is still able to get out freely, but having a space separate from the rest of the room can help. I would also suggest closing the door or putting up a gate if you haven’t already.
Another problem that often rises after a toddler bed is introduced is early morning rising. If you have an early morning riser, the best intervention is to first make the room as dark as possible so your child doesn’t wake by the morning light coming in. Second, make sure you have a white noise machine to block out any early morning sounds (birds, garbage truck, etc.).