How do you keep your climbing toddler in a crib?

How do you keep your climbing toddler in a crib?

You’ve probably read our constant pleas to keep your toddler in a crib until age three or later. The first reaction we get whenever we make that statement is, “What if she climbs out?” Your natural instinct is that you have to move your child to a bed at that point, right? Maybe not. If you are vigilant and immediately respond to your child’s climbing behavior like you would respond to any other sleep regression (or, like let’s say if she climbed the bookcase in the living room, or tried to run in the road….), then you may be able to teach even the most nimble toddler to stay in the crib. Trust us, it’s much easier to teach your young toddler to follow certain rules in the crib than it is to teach your little explorer to stay in a bed. We’re happy to work with you to fix problems that arise, but we’d rather give you the tools to prevent problems whenever we can! Here’s how:

Set the Stage

Take step stools out of the crib.

Very clever toddlers will use their collection of stuffed animals, blankets, or crib bumpers to make a ladder out of the crib. Even a dresser or chair placed close to a crib can provide a step up and over! If you have a climber, remove everything but the essentials from in and around your child’s crib.


Need More Help?

We offer several options for optimizing your child's sleep:

SLEEP TRAINING CLASS (for well babies 6-15 months)

PHONE CONSULTATIONS (with one of our sleep experts)

THE SECRET TO NAPS (downloadable e-book)


Use a sleep sack.

A sleep sack may help prevent little legs from making it up to the top of the crib rail. There are some great options for toddler-sized sleep sacks. One of our favorites is the Baby DeeDee sleep sack because they are a nice weight for toddlers and they are sized up to 36 months (we do not take money for endorsements, this is our true opinion). Some toddlers will figure out how to take their sleep sack off, but in many cases, it will buy you a bit more time.

Use a cue to tell your child when it is morning.

Your child will probably try to get out of bed at bedtime and early in the morning. In the morning, your child may not feel that sleepy and won’t necessarily know how long you’d like her to stay in bed. It’s really important your child understands your expectations, so add a sound cue to let your child know when it is ok to get up for the day. One option is to simply set a tablet or smartphone to some soft, pleasant music for your child’s wake time. Keep up your intervention (see below) until the alarm goes off and then make a big deal about it being wake-up time so that your child learns why you are changing your response. You can also put a lamp on a timer or smart outlet to turn on at wake time, but avoid clocks that have bright lights on all night.

Make sure sleep timing is right.

One of the main reasons children start to climb is that their schedule is not appropriate and they are bored and awake in the crib. Crib climbing often coincides with changing sleep needs as toddlers get older. There is about an hour drift in the circadian drive to sleep (your child’s internal biological clock) from age 1 to age 3. Unfortunately, there is a strong drive to be awake right before your child’s biological bedtime. This means that your child might not be ready for sleep when you are asking her to sleep. If this is the case, then she’ll be energized at bedtime and fill her time with experimentation (see our bedtime battles blog), which may include climbing. Keep a log of the time your child falls asleep (not the time you put her in bed). The average time that she’s fallen asleep for a week is her biological bedtime. You’ll want to put her down to sleep at this time going forward. This doesn’t have to be her permanent new bedtime, but it is where you want to start. Similarly, many times crib climbing occurs because a napping child has been put down for a nap too early and has time awake in her crib to get into some mischief! Make sure the timing of your child’s nap vs waketime and bedtime is appropriate. In most cases, the nap should be centered in between waketime and bedtime, with about 5-6 hours of awake time between sleep episodes. See our blogs on nap transitions and schedules to make sure your expectations are reasonable.

Don’t use the crib for time-outs.

Always avoid using the crib as a place of punishment. Most children who are old enough to climb out of the crib are also at an age where they begin testing limits. If you put your little one in the crib when she’s already frustrated, then you’re asking for trouble. She will not want to be in the crib and will try anything she can to get your attention and get out. This may also cause crib aversion around sleep times. It’s best to find another location for taking breaks if needed.

Make sure the crib is set up to reduce climbing.

Make sure you've lowered your crib mattress to the lowest setting possible. Some parents have been able to find a thinner mattress to fit their child’s crib and just that extra inch or two can also help prevent climbing. Some cribs have a high side and a low side. Turning a crib like this around so the high side is out can sometimes buy you some more climb-free crib time. As always, make sure that any changes you make conform to the manufacturer's recommendations.