As your child grows into a walking, talking little person, you may find yourself eager to move him or her into a toddler bed. However, moving your child too early could lead to bedtime battles or nighttime disruption. On the other hand, even children who are 'old enough' to move to a bed can sometimes have trouble making the transition. Here is our quick guide on how to make the crib to bed transition:
When should you consider transitioning your child from a crib to a bed?
Try to wait until at least age 3! Children under age 3 just don't have the impulse control to understand that they need to stay in bed (not that it's easy for a 3-year-old, it's just easier). Think of it this way, there is no incentive that you can provide a 2-year-old that is better than the positive reinforcement that they get from seeing you. As a result, you can't easily negotiate or incentivize your toddler to stay in bed. There are only two situations where we recommend moving a child to a bed before age 3:
If it is not safe to keep your child in the crib due to climbing (to read our blog on early crib climbing and how to try to avoid it, click here).
If your child has been co-sleeping with you and has not experienced sleeping in a crib (however, we would still recommend making the transition to a crib if your child is under age 2)
How should you prepare your child to transition from a crib to a bed?
If possible, try to make the switch during an otherwise calm period in your child’s life (i.e., avoid switching during the first week of school, or the first month a baby arrives, or the day you move into a new house)
Try to make the move child-led if possible and wait until your child shows interest and is asking questions.
Avoid statements like “you’re a big boy/girl now,” “the baby needs your crib,” “you’ll sleep better in a bed,” or “you’re too big for your crib.” Some of these statements may be true, but they are not helpful in mentally preparing your child for a bed. For many children, this is a thrilling right of passage, but for others, it’s a new freedom that can create some anxiety. Don’t assume your child is super psyched about it (even if they act like they are).
Focus instead on growth and development. “I know you are ready,” “Now that you are three, it’s time for a bed,” “sometimes new things are hard, but I will help you get used to it,” etc.
Keep it simple, keep it positive. No need to make this a huge production that is weeks in the making (that can be stressful). A few days of preparation is all you need. Take a trip to a friend’s house to see their bed, get a book at the library, do some test runs during the day, or go to the store and pick a special toddler-sized pillow, or new sheets or blanket. (If your child is 3, s/he is old enough for a light blanket and a small pillow.)
Double-check your child’s schedule and make sure s/he’s been falling asleep quickly within 5-20 minutes each night in the crib. If it’s been taking your child much longer than that, then it will be much more likely that your child will get out of bed to find you once s/he has the freedom that comes with being in a bed.
If your child takes longer than 20 minutes to fall asleep, then s/he probably needs less sleep. Three-year-olds will typically sleep about 11 hours in 24 hours. If your child is napping for 1.5-2 hours a day, that might only mean a 9-10 hour night! Check our age-by-stage blog to learn more about how much sleep is normal at different ages.
Consider your child's napping behavior. Many children will stop napping when they have the freedom to get out of bed. If your child regularly naps, then it may be better to wait before moving your child to a bed.
How should you prepare your child's environment before you make the switch to a bed?
What kind of bed is best for a toddler?
The first consideration when moving your child from a crib to a bed should be safety. Avoid putting your child in a bed that is raised far off the floor to reduce the risk of nighttime falls.
It's totally appropriate to convert a crib with a toddler rail or to put a mattress on the floor. It's also fine to purchase a dedicated toddler bed if that works best for your situation.
A twin bed, double bed, queen bed can work as long as you have appropriate safety measures in place.
Consider putting the mattress on the floor first and then raising it onto a frame once your child is used to the bed.
If you decide to put your child in an adult bed, make sure that you use guard rails as directed by the manufacturer. Also, remember that toddlers will often move around a lot during sleep. As a result, your child may be at risk of falling over the head or foot of the bed. Discuss these issues with your pediatrician to make sure your child's sleep environment is as safe as possible.
Gaps between a bed and a wall can be an entrapment hazard.
What changes should you make to your child's room?
Safety is the most important consideration in preparing your child's room.
Make sure that there are no cords hanging from blinds or other strangulation hazards present in your child's room.
Secure furniture like dressers, bookshelves, and mirrors (toddlers like to climb!).
Make sure windows are locked and secure.
Remove any choking hazards from your child's room (e.g., art supplies like beads).
Remove heavy objects that could fall on your child (table lamps, televisions, table fans, etc.)
Consider putting a gate on your child's door. This can provide the same security that your child experienced in the crib and can also prevent your child from leaving the room unsupervised. If you do not put a gate on the door, then ensure that you put a gate at stairs or any unsafe location where your child might wander after getting out of bed.
This is not a comprehensive list, so please consider all of the aspects of your child's room that could represent a hazard.
Consider temporarily removing toys and interesting objects from your child's room. This won't be necessary for all children, but remember, toddlers are curious! Some toddlers will have a hard time staying in bed when there are interesting toys and objects to explore.
Introduce a morning cue. This could be a toddler clock or simply a nightlight plugged into a smart outlet that you set to turn on at the same time each day. If your child knows that it's not morning until the morning cue occurs, then you will be more likely to avoid an early wake time after the transition. It's helpful to introduce this while your child is still in a crib so that you can teach your child that the morning cue is meaningful.
What should you expect when you move your child to a bed?
Make sure you make the transition to a bed on a day when your child's schedule was normal. Consider pushing bedtime 15 minutes later for the first few days of the transition.
Expect a “honeymoon” period of 1-2 weeks where your child remains in bed and sleeps well. Many parents experience a false sense of success in the first few weeks after making the transition to a bed and are then blindsided by their child's sudden realization that getting out of bed is an option.
If your child gets out of bed, stay calm and patient. If anxiety is low, walk your child back to bed calmly over and over and over repeating, “it’s time for sleep now, let’s get back to bed.” See our blog on bedtime battles for more information on how to handle this and for how to deal with toddler anxiety issues.
If you are seeing this blog after problems have developed, then we would be happy to help in a sleep consultation where we can develop a plan with you to get your child back on track.
Kochanska, G., Murray, K.T. and Harlan, E.T., 2000. Effortful control in early childhood: continuity and change, antecedents, and implications for social development. Developmental psychology, 36(2), p.220.
Hammond, C.J., Potenza, M.N. and Mayes, L.C., 2012. Development of impulse control, inhibition, and self-regulatory behaviors in normative populations across the lifespan. In The Oxford handbook of impulse control disorders (p. 232). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Sigler, E.A. and Aamidor, S., 2005. From positive reinforcement to positive behaviors: An everyday guide for the practitioner. Early Childhood Education Journal, 32(4), pp.249-253.