Whether your little one has decided to climb out of the crib every chance they get, or you just feel it’s time for them to graduate to a big-kid bed, the transition from crib to bed can feel overwhelming. When is the right time? How do you prepare them? How do you make sure their space is safe? We asked our sleep expert, Natalie Willes, Pediatric Sleep Consultant, what parents need to know about this change. See her answers below.
Q: What’s the “right time” to make the crib to bed transition? How do you know when your toddler is ready to move from crib to bed?
Natalie: Overall, there aren't any milestones to look for to indicate that a child is ready to make the transition, as it should be avoided until it’s absolutely necessary— like when a child can climb out of their crib, posing a safety risk.
Ideally, parents would transition their child from a crib to a bed no earlier than 2.5 years old, ideally well beyond that age. I recommend no later than about age four, however. Waiting until 2.5 years or older ensures they’re cognitively capable of understanding the natural consequences they will receive if they do not follow their parent’s expectations of staying in the room until the morning.
Q: How should parents prepare their child for the transition?
Natalie: Like all other ages, when a child may undergo sleep training, preparation is not necessary or beneficial. In fact, the more a parent discusses the transition ahead of time, the more likely it is that a child will become anxious about the change.
Further, no matter how much or in what way parents discuss the move from a crib to a bed, a child is ultimately going to react in whichever way they choose. The biggest issues parents anticipate with the transition often have to do with a child being afraid of the dark or falling out of their bed, but the biggest issue they need to be prepared to address is the child leaving their bedroom at will. Once a child has the freedom to come and go as they please, major sleep problems will often occur.
Q: Do you recommend a toddler bed to start? Straight to the bigger bed? What about guardrails or bumpers?
Natalie: Most cribs can easily be transitioned to a bed simply by removing one of the side rails. Or, many cribs can be transitioned to a twin bed using a converter kit. Either of these options is ideal as it is the most straightforward and least time-consuming.
If a parent chooses to purchase a new bed, that is fine as well. Many families choose to use guard rails, and as long as they’re used as recommended by the manufacturer, they are good choices as well— though most children don’t end up falling out of their beds as parents fear they will. Using a mattress on the floor is also an acceptable option. Suffice it to say the mattress and bed situation matters far more to parents than it does to kids, so I advise parents to do whatever is easiest.
Q: What should I use for pillows and bedding for my toddler?
Natalie: Once your child is old enough to be out of their crib, normal pillows and bedding is acceptable, and there is no need to use any specially designed toddler pillows.
Q: What are your bedtime routine suggestions for toddlers?
Natalie: Bedtime routine should remain the same as from when the child was in their crib, and parents should explain that going forward they’ll sleep in a bed instead of a crib.
When parents transition from crib to bed, they should also ensure the bedroom door knob is covered with a child proof door knob cover (levers should be switched for knobs, as childproof lever handles are typically ineffective).
A toddler clock should also be in use and placed out of a child’s reach, and parents should tell their child that they’ll be back to get them when the light turns on each morning. Simple, and straightforward is key.
Parents should set the expectation that the child is to sleep in their bed, that leaving the room is not an option, and that the light turning on each morning is what will trigger parents to get them up for the day.
Q: Do you have any sleep environment tips for toddlers? Is it different from babies?
Natalie: Darkness and white noise are still key. White noise should be used indefinitely and the machine should be placed out of the child’s reach so they can’t turn it off.
When children reach elementary school they may decide they want to sleep without white noise, but generally speaking white noise is one of the healthiest aspects of sleep hygiene, so I recommend its use indefinitely.
Q: How do I make sure their space is safe?
Natalie: Leaving their room should not be an option, as when you make the transition to a bed you should be using a device to keep a child within their room. Something like a plastic doorknob cover over their doorknob works well.
Ensuring their room is 100% safe is key, including covering all outlets with outlet boxes, securing electrical cords to the wall and winding up blind cords out of child’s reach. Parents should painstakingly childproof the child’s bedroom to ensure there is nothing within their room they could hurt themselves with. Closet doors should be locked and ensuite bathroom doors should also be locked so a child can’t access their bathroom overnight.
For potty-trained kids, a plastic potty in the bedroom should suffice. As importantly, a child should not be able to turn on any lights in their bedroom, so light switches should be covered with a child proof light switch cover and all lamps should be removed from the room or placed somewhere they are inaccessible to the child. Nightlights should be avoided when possible at all costs. All heavy furniture should be secured to the wall.
Finally, children will often choose to sleep in places other than the bed, so ensure the video monitor (mounted out of the child’s reach) can view every nook and cranny of the room. Parents should allow kids to sleep anywhere they wish, even if it’s on the floor. If the child wants to sleep in their bed, they will make it there on their own.
Q: What should a parent do if their child gets out of bed?
Natalie: Once children are in a bed, their parents should consider their bedroom a crib. Meaning, a child will be able to get up and move around as they please—just like they can in a crib—and parents should allow them to do that. This is why it’s absolutely vital that the child not be able to turn on a light or have access to anything that would be a danger to them while they’re alone in the room.
Many parents secure toys and books (and anything their child can use to distract themselves from sleeping) out of the child’s reach, so that even if they get out of their crib, there is nothing for them to do. This will encourage them to sleep instead of play.
Some tips I have for holding boundaries if your child is trying to get up or out of their room:
Parents should put themselves in the mindset of when they sleep trained their child as an infant. Even when an infant woke unexpectedly or parents felt they were asking to leave their crib before the established wake time in the morning, they typically did not respond— that is often the best way to address a child asking to leave their room.
Using a toddler clock is helpful, so kids know when the morning is and when parents will come to their room. Moving into a bed should not change the expectations parents have for their child to sleep independently, and any interaction with parents after bedtime and before the established morning wake time will simply cause more problems for the child and will inspire them to keep trying to get their parents to interact with them.
Consistency in parents’ behaviors and expectations from the day the child is transitioned to a bed is key, so kids never have the expectation they will be permitted to sleep with their parents or leave the room as they please.
Toddlerhood comes with a whole host of new challenges for parents to navigate, and many of those challenges revolve around sleep. Our new class, Toddler & Preschool Sleep: Regressions, Bed Transitions, Fears & More will teach you how to overcome some of the most common sleep issues, including fear of the dark, transitioning to a bed, dropping that final nap, and more. Have even more questions about the toddler stage? From mealtime misbehaviors to meltdowns and more, check out our toddler classes, for expert tips and tricks for handling the fun (and sometimes not-so-fun) things the the toddler stage has to offer.