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.
Pick an intervention and be consistent.
We can’t stress enough the importance of starting an intervention at the right biological bedtime as described above.
Monitor from outside the room.
When your child climbs out, you need to keep her safe, but you also want to teach her that climbing out of the crib is not acceptable. The fastest solution back to baseline is to leave your child’s room as usual at bedtime, but then get back into the room the moment you see her start to make motions to get out. When that happens, then immediately enter her room, pick her up and calmly say as you put her back down, “good night, it’s time to sleep.” Sometimes keeping her in the crib with a variation of “no climbing, danger” in a firm but calm manner as you put her leg down is helpful too. You will probably have to do this calmly and repetitively for over an hour for 3-4 nights in a row, but that should be enough to keep your little one in the crib (and compared to getting your child to sleep in a bed, it takes FAR less time). If your child climbs out during the middle of the night, then get to her as quickly as you can and put her right back in the crib using your goodnight mantra, “good night, it’s time to sleep.” Use your video monitor to watch your child from that moment on and keep responding when she climbs out. Again, you’ll have a few rough nights and then things should get better.
Stay in the room with your child at bedtime.
If you don’t have a video monitor or if your child is just too fast and you are worried about safety, then it may be better for you to stay in the room with your child as she is falling asleep. When you do this, you’ll want to sit quietly in a chair away from your child. You shouldn’t engage in conversation or try to negotiate with your child to stay in bed. Instead, just matter of factly put her back in the crib when she starts to climb out. Don’t get angry, just put her back in the crib/put her leg down as described above. You’ll likely need to stay in the room for 3-4 nights before the novelty of climbing out starts to wear off. Once that happens, then you can leave the room, but stay right outside the door, and if you see her start to climb out on the monitor, then go right in and put her back into the crib and then leave again. You’ll probably have another 3-4 nights of her challenging you before she finally stops trying to get out. If your child is climbing out throughout the night, then you may need to sleep in your child’s room for a few nights in order to reaffirm that the crib is the place to be. You should sleep in the room for 3-4 nights, but do not make a big deal about it. You don’t have to start the night when your child does, you can just go into her room when you are ready to go to sleep. When she wakes, just return her to bed and then sit in the place that you sat at bedtime. Keep returning her to the crib until she goes to sleep. Once she’s asleep, then you can lay down and continue sleeping until she’s up again. After you move out of her room at bedtime, you can move back to sleeping in your own room. You’ll just want to be vigilant about getting to her right away when she wakes at night.
We want to give you the tools to keep your child in a crib until she has the cognitive maturity and impulse control to transition to and stay in a bed. Unfortunately, sometimes you just won’t be able to make that happen (or you’ll find this blog AFTER you’ve made the switch to a bed!). For toddlers who start climbing under the age of 2 1/2 the transition to a bed is a huge pain point for parents. Young children won’t mean to forget the rules and get up to find you, but the freedom can be overwhelming and their impulse control is still developing. Try to keep that in mind as your frustration and exhaustion rises in the night as you work through this- your child’s is too so dig deep and be patient! You’ll want to weigh the risks and benefits of keeping a potential crib climber in the crib vs having a young child free to roam around a bedroom at night. Make sure your crib meets current safety standards, your potentially climbing child is not in loose clothing, and furniture and dressers are pushed away from the crib. In some cases, the safer option will be to switch to a toddler bed. This is not an easy decision and we empathize greatly with parents who are going through this. This is one of the hardest sleep problems to manage. If you are having trouble keeping your little one in a toddler bed, check out our bedtime battles blog or consider booking a consultation with us. There are many options for helping your child stay put, but sometimes it's best to develop a personalized plan, since developing little personalities, anxiety, motor skills, logistics (siblings, etc.), and parenting style all come into play when trying to determine what type of plan will work.
LeBourgeois, M.K., Wright Jr, K.P., LeBourgeois, H.B. and Jenni, O.G., 2013. Dissonance between parent‐selected bedtimes and young children's circadian physiology influences nighttime settling difficulties. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(4), pp.234-242.
Simpkin, C.T., Jenni, O.G., Carskadon, M.A., Wright Jr, K.P., Akacem, L.D., Garlo, K.G. and LeBourgeois, M.K., 2014. Chronotype is associated with the timing of the circadian clock and sleep in toddlers. Journal of sleep research, 23(4), pp.397-405.
Akacem, L.D., Simpkin, C.T., Carskadon, M.A., Wright Jr, K.P., Jenni, O.G., Achermann, P. and LeBourgeois, M.K., 2015. The timing of the circadian clock and sleep differ between napping and non-napping toddlers. PLoS One, 10(4).
Yeh, E.S., Rochette, L.M., McKenzie, L.B. and Smith, G.A., 2011. Injuries associated with cribs, playpens, and bassinets among young children in the US, 1990–2008. Pediatrics, 127(3), pp.479-486.