Toddler Sleep Solutions: When and How to Make It a Smooth Transition

All too often, parents rush to get their child out of a crib or into a bed, as though it were a sign of achievement, maturity, or their guaranteed success as adults. One woman I worked with even reported an unspoken competition in her playgroup to see which baby could move first transition from crib to bed! Children who switch too young to a bed may experience sleep disruptions, and difficult bedtimes with tears and tantrums. Moving to a crib is not always a toddler sleep solution. Safety is also a factor. I worry a lot about a 20-month-old roaming around in his room at night, pulling out drawers, unplugging lamps, exercising all that wonderful but potentially hazardous curiosity. Even if the child is trying to climb out of the crib, I almost always advise parents to keep him in his crib as long as possible, definitely until two and a half, and preferably until three. By then, a child has the cognitive and verbal skills to understand the “big bed” rules.

Children who move from the crib too early don’t necessarily understand that they need to stay in their bed all night long. Then they keep getting out of their bed over and over again, and you may end up having to gate the doorway, which sometimes provokes the tears and tantrums that you were trying to avoid. They may also miss that feeling of cozy containment in their crib. I know some families who regretted moving the child to the bed and managed to get him back to a crib, particularly if he was talking about his crib or trying to climb into a younger sibling’s crib. That’s not regression. It is listening to your child.

Don’t rush your child out of a crib for a new sibling if they are under 2.5 years old when the baby arrives. It is better to borrow or a buy a good used crib for the new baby. You don’t want a toddler or preschooler getting out of a bed to check on the baby with you multiple times in a night!

As you can tell, I like keeping toddlers in the crib as long as I can but they sometimes have their own agenda. If your child starts climbing out, dissuade him by making the climb harder by lowering the mattress. Put pillows on the ground for safety in case he attempts Olympic-style hurdling. Remove large toys and stuffed animals from the crib that might serve as a launch pad. If he does get out, put him right back in the crib with minimal interaction – except to say, “No climbing.” Be firm, but don’t yell at him. Try stationing yourself outside the bedroom door, out of his line of vision if possible, and peek in. When he starts to raise his leg again say, “No climbing.” Sound like you mean it, and keep putting him back in the crib if you have to. You may also try to put him in a long T-shirt or nightshirt, which makes it harder for him to climb. If your child still seems determined to get out, particularly if he’s under the age of two, try using a crib tent, a zipped mesh cover that lets him see out but not get out. That may buy you a few months before you switch to the bed. Make sure you install the tent properly to avoid any safety hazards.

Some kids start talking about “big boy” or “big girl” beds, perhaps after seeing cousins or friends sleeping in big beds. If they can articulate it, that’s a reasonably good sign that they have the verbal ability to understand big-bed rules. Have your child help you pick out special sheets for his new bed and make a big deal out of it. Get him involved- have him help “assemble” the bed, put on the new sheets, pick which stuff animals will sleep with him etc. If you need to take the crib out of his room to fit the new bed in then put the bed in the same place as the crib or on the same wall as the crib was on. If you are moving your child to a new room then I would suggest you decorate it, spend time in his room with him and talk about the change a couple of weeks before you actually change rooms. You may even suggest he nap in there on occasion. Try to put the bed in the same relative place to the door as was in his old room if possible. Many children like their beds in corners with a rail on the other side. Once all his things are moved in to his new room, you can pick the first night that he will sleep in his new room and then don’t turn back! If you need to do a modified Shuffle to help your child adjust to their new room then go ahead. Same for if you are moving to a new house. Change can be disruptive to anyone, no matter how old we are!

Make sure the room is safety proof since now your child can get out of their bed unsupervised! Use a bed rail so he won’t fall out. Remind him that with this privilege come rules – like staying in bed all night. Sticker charts are wonderful behavior incentives for older children. Children who don’t yet understand a chart may like wearing a sticker in the morning. On his first night in the big bed, explain how important it is to stay in his bed all night long until morning time. Remind him that you will check on him before you go to bed. For the first few nights stay near his bedroom at bedtime, perhaps putting away laundry in your room, and reassure him from your room if he calls out to you. If he comes out of his room, quickly and quietly return him to his room, tuck him in and remind him that you expect him to stay in his bed all night long.

This article is geared toward children who already know how to put themselves to sleep (without sleep crutches) and are ready to transition to a bed. If you are attempting to sleep coach a child who is newly in a big bed then I would suggest you do the “Shuffle” as outlined in the age appropriate chapter in “Good Night Sleep Tight“.

As always, remember that each child is an individual and it is important to listen to the cues they are giving you. What may have worked for one child does not necessarily work for their siblings. Clear rules and parental consistency are essential for transitioning from the crib to a bed, mixed liberally with plenty of love, cuddles, and kisses!

What worked for your family when you transitioned into a ‘big kid’ bed?

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6 comments
Lisa
Lisa

Hello Kim!
Just wanted to let you know that we did the sleep lady shuffle with our 11 mo old and so far so great! He was actually a wonderful sleeper as we've followed your guidance since birth but a double ear infection and teething put a wrench in the whole process. So after he got through the worst of the teething episode and his infection we did the shuffle. In your experience do the families you work with tend to repeat the process again later as the child goes through more growth stages/separation anxiety etc. . ? Or, do you find that at this age the process seems to stick?

Thanks for all you do!
Lisa

p.s. I would love to see a forum

Paula
Paula

What is the oldest you would make the transition from crib to bed? My daughter is almost three and she seems really happy in her crib. I'd like to make the change as late as we can to avoid some of the issues you mentioned (staying in bed, running around, etc). Thanks.

Sarah P.
Sarah P.

Dear Sleep Lady,

I am currently reading your book "good night, sleep tight" and have read up to the "six to eight months" age chapter (my baby is 5 months old) and I am having a hard time understanding what "drowsy but awake" means. I have read and re-read the pages on it and have tried to accomplish it several times to no avail. Do you have another explanation or maybe some insights as to what the problem might be?

Thank you,

Extremely tired mommy

Erin
Erin

I moved my daughter to the big kid bed too soon. My first daughter did great at that age (16 months) but every kid is different. It takes me 45 minutes to get her to sleep at night and then she leaves her room all night long. After long consideration I have decided to put the crib back up tonight and move her back in it. Am I being mean? She's only 19 months old, I shouldn't have moved her in the first place.

Michele
Michele

My 3.5 yr old daughter has recently started to have issues with sleeping in her bed. I am certain at times she has had nightmares. We of course have let her sleep in our bed while either myself or my husband sleep on the couch. Her crib turns into a day bed, which is what she is in at the moment and we do plan on getting her a big girl bed in March but not sure if that is a fix to the problem. I am also concerned that she is now just wanting to sleep in mommy or daddy's bed because generally when she finally does she sleeps all night. Help!!!

HK
HK

Crying in Cleveland! I'm not sure if you can offer suggestions for school age children. Sleeping has never been my daughter's strong suit. We've had sleep issues since she was born...tried every 'solution' on the market. It gets better from time to time, and then worse. She is 5 1/2 right now, and going through extreme anxiety/crying/clinging at bedtime. She will not stay in her bed without my husband or myself and will not fall asleep unless someone is laying beside her. We are grasping at straws lately, trying to get her to stay and sleep in her own bed, on her own! She is well rounded and emotionally adjusted during the day, but breaks down at the mere suggestion of bedtime. We hate to be harsh with her (threats, spankings, etc.) and are looking for something that will ease her into a age-appropriate bedtime routine. HELP!

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