Early one morning through a fog of sleep, I heard a thump down the hall. I opened my eyes a few moments later to find my 3-year-old’s face smiling proudly a few inches from my own. The day had come. He had learned how to climb out of his crib, and it was time for a “big kid bed.”
This transition required a few adjustments and did result in some “curtain calls” to the living room after his bedtime the first few nights. But my son was soon sleeping happily and safely in his new bed.
So how do you know when it’s the ideal time? And how do you make this transition as easy as possible for everyone? For this guide, I spoke to a researcher, parent educator and pediatricians who specialize in sleep-related concerns. I also included guidance from my own experience as a psychologist in a pediatric sleep center.
When is a child ready for a “big kid bed?”
Most experts recommend making the crib-to-bed transition after your child turns 3. “Before the age of 3, many children do not have the behavioral control or understanding to stay within the imaginary boundaries of a bed, and it’s not fair to expect them to stay in a bed when it’s beyond their abilities,” said Dr. Jodi Mindell, the chair of the Pediatric Sleep Council, an international team of sleep and child development experts. According to research Dr. Mindell co-authored in 2018, waiting until 3 significantly benefits a child’s sleep. The study, which was based on sleep data collected from the parents of almost 2,000 toddlers globally, found that crib sleeping was associated with healthier habits, including an earlier bedtime, longer stretches of time asleep and less bedtime resistance.
That said, you may need to tailor the timing of a crib-to-bed transition to your child’s development. Most pediatricians recommend moving to a regular bed when a child is 34 to 36 inches tall or when the height of the crib rail is less than three quarters of his height because, at that point, he may be able to climb out on his own.
If your toddler has figured out how to get out of the crib but is not yet 3, you can try moving the crib mattress to its lowest setting, or even the floor. Or put your child to bed in clothing that does not allow her to throw one leg over the crib rail, like a properly sized sleep sack zipped up the back or footed pajamas that have a piece of material sewn between the legs. Do not use a crib tent to keep your child in the crib since these have been proven to be unsafe.
Should my older child move to a bed now that I’m expecting a baby?
A new baby brings up many changes for your older child. Giving up her crib need not be one since an infant can sleep in a bassinet next to your bed for several months. Once your baby’s sleep becomes more regular (usually around 4 to 6 months), his nighttime needs often decrease and he may be more ready to move into a regular crib.
If you do want to give your older child’s crib to the new baby, make her transition to the big kid bed several months before the baby arrives. Use new bedding in the crib so that your older child doesn’t see hers being used by the baby. She can take her crib blankets to the new bed to feel more comfortable.
How can I help make the transition go smoothly?
Until your child knows how to fall asleep independently, making the transition from a crib to a bed will be challenging; it could even make bedtime more difficult since she could easily leave her new bed and head right for your room. Once your child is able to get herself to sleep, transitioning to her big kid bed will go more smoothly and quickly, and she will be better at getting back to sleep when she awakens during the night (as all children do).
Focus first on using a consistent bedtime routine every night. I recommend one with five basic steps: bedtime snack, bath or washing up, teeth brushing, final bathroom trip, and reading one or two books together in your child’s room. Then put your child into the crib with her lovey, if she has one, or something to do (looking at a picture book or playing with a safe, small toy). Turn on a soft night light and remind her that she can look at the book or play quietly in the crib until she is drowsy enough to fall asleep. If you have been staying with your child to help her fall asleep, you may need to sit in a chair nearby and work your way out of the room in stages over time.
Keep this plan in place when your child transitions to a bed. On nights when she does not feel drowsy enough to drop off to sleep even after the bedtime routine is done, remind her to look at her book or play in her bed quietly until she does.
What are the options for a “big kid bed?”
You don’t have to invest in a new bed right away for your child. There are several options to get him used to sleeping in a bed instead of a crib.
- Continue to use the crib mattress, but place it on the floor or on a toddler bed frame.
- Use a twin mattress on the floor, or put it on a low bed frame.
- Consider making these changes in steps. Start with the crib mattress on the floor, then transition to a twin mattress, later add a bed frame and then finally a box spring, so that the bed height gradually changes as the child adjusts and grows.
- Remember that bunk beds and loft beds are not recommended for children under age 6.
What kind of child proofing do I need to do before my child transitions from crib to bed?
Now that your child will have full access to everything in her room, you should make sure it’s safe for her to roam free.
- Windows: Make sure windows have window guards or stops, and ensure that your child cannot climb on furniture to reach one. Don’t rely on screens to prevent falls from windows because they cannot hold the weight of a child pushing against them. Be sure to cut any window or blind cords that are looped or dangling, and make sure that all strings or cords are fewer than 12 inches long.
- Furniture: Use furniture anchors and drawer stops that allow drawers to open only about four inches so that your little one cannot climb on or tip over the furniture. Remove heavy items on top of furniture or bookcases. Add bumpers to sharp furniture corners.
- Lighting: Remove floor lamps and make sure lamps on a table won’t fall over. Wall sconces are great choices. Use night lights so that everyone can move around the room safely at night and choose ones that stay cool to the touch.
- Fire safety: Install smoke and carbon dioxide detectors if your child’s room doesn’t have them already. Once they are in place, check them at regular intervals and be sure to plan fire escape options.
- Electricity: Make sure all of the outlets have sliding covers and secure all electrical cords.
- Heating: Block access to radiators and heaters. You should also avoid using electric blankets and heating pads.
Are there pitfalls to avoid?
Try not to make the crib-to-bed transition during any big changes, such as weaning, potty training, starting day care, having company in your home or moving. If you do make a household move around the time when your child is ready for a big kid bed, you can always make the move to a bed later, after everyone has settled in.
“This transition can also be more difficult if your child’s crib is in your room and her new bed will be in another, so it’s best to move the crib to your child’s room first and make sure that she is sleeping well there before transitioning to a bed,” said Dr. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, a parent educator and sleep consultant and the author of Sleepless in America. “A bed feels more open than a crib. Create a sense of a snug nest by placing the bed in a corner and consider situating it so that the view is similar to the one the child has from the crib now.”
You may also want to wait before taking the crib away entirely. The transition itself could lead to more night wakings, and you don’t want your child to get into the habit of getting out of bed to find you repeatedly. Instead, she can go back to crib-sleeping for a while until she develops better self-soothing skills.
How do I get my child to stay in her bed!?
One more story, one more hug, one more trip to the bathroom … these requests often become more frequent when your child transitions from the crib to bed. In this case, you can try the “bedtime ticket” technique. Once you finish up the bedtime routine, give your child a “bedtime ticket,” which can be a decorated index card, sticky note or whatever you like. Tell her that she can trade this ticket for one brief request and then leave the room.
When your child calls out with a request, come back to the room, grant the request and take the ticket. If she makes another request, remind her that she has already used the ticket and should play quietly in bed until she is drowsy enough to fall asleep.
The bedtime ticket technique helps kids and parents: Children learn that a parent will grant one more request, but not a dozen. Parents may find out that they may have been granting too many requests to begin with, which rewards a child for staying awake.
Above all, be patient with your child and yourself during this transition, said Dr. Melissa Burnham, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Nevada Reno. “It’s a big step for both of you and will take some time to fully adjust. Being consistent and providing a lot of positive time during the daytime hours will help you and your child successfully adjust to this new sleep environment.”
If your child is ready for a Big Kid Bed, check out Big Bed For Little Bear in the Caribu app! Read about what it’s like to make the transition out of the crib. Sign up for Caribu to get started so you can read, play, and color together with your loved ones in a virtual playdate.
You can read the original article in The New York Times.