Whether your toddler loves her crib or itches to get out of it, she'll eventually graduate to big-kid sleeping arrangements. But when should you transition to a toddler bed, and how can you do it smoothly and safely? Here are some suggestions from the experts.
When to Switch to a Toddler Bed
Unlike some developmental milestones of early childhood—such as potty training or starting solids—the move from crib to bed doesn’t always come naturally. As a general rule, though, parents should make the change before their kid can climb out on his own and possibly hurt himself, says Mark Widome, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Penn State Children's Hospital in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
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Most toddlers have the ability to hop over the crib rail when they are about 35 inches tall and between 18 and 24 months of age. Of course, some babies are particularly agile and will attempt to climb out sooner (at which point they should be moved to a bed), while less adventurous types will not try to climb out at all.
If your toddler is comfortable in his crib and not a climber, then it's fine to let him sleep there past the age of 2—as long as you're mindful of his safety, says Jack Walsh, executive director of The Danny Foundation, an organization dedicated to crib and child-product safety. But the longer a baby stays in his crib, Walsh adds, the more emotionally attached he may become, and the harder it may be to transition to a toddler bed.
What If You Need the Crib for Another Baby?
Another factor that might determine your toddler’s bed age is the arrival of a new sibling. Take extra care if this is the reason for the transition; getting a new sibling is a major change, and you don't want to make your child feel as if she's being displaced, says Pamela High, M.D., medical director of the Infant Development Center at Women and Infants' Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.
Begin the transition one to two months before the new baby is due to arrive, assuming that your toddler is at least 18 months old, says Dr. Widome. By getting your older child comfortably situated in his new bed, he’ll think of the crib as neutral territory—and not his sleeping spot—when the baby arrives. If possible, dismantle the crib or store it in a room where it's out of sight, suggests Dr. Widome. Or aim to make the crib "unsleepable" by filling it with stuffed animals, toys, and blankets.
Regardless of the reason for the switch, you'll ideally want to do it at a time when there are no other major changes going on in your child's life, says Dr. Widome. For instance, avoid making the move if your child is in the throes of toilet training, giving up a pacifier, or getting used to a new child-care arrangement.
Easing the Transition to a Toddler Bed
Before making the switch to a big-kid bed, you'll have to plan out the logistics. Follow these tips and tricks to keep your child happy.
Choose the best toddler bed.
Some parents simply put their child's crib mattresses on the floor to ease the transition, says Dr. High. Others spring for a toddler bed, which is generally low to the ground and can accommodate an existing crib mattress. They often come in the form of cars, castles, or other appealing shapes.
Toddler beds are fine, says Dr. Widome, but they're not safety necessities. You can always install a removable guardrail on a twin bed to keep your toddler from falling out of it.
Have your child pick his sleeping accessories.
Whichever bed you choose, let your child help pick out kid-friendly sheets, pillowcases, comforters, and stuffed animals. This can make the big-kid bed seem more appealing to her.
Establish a bedtime routine.
As in any time of transition, it helps to establish a predictable bedtime routine, says Dr. High. This routine—which can involve reading a story, talking about your child's day, or praying—should leave your child looking forward to going to bed.
A consistent bedtime ritual should also help a young child feel grounded. Toddlers are often ambivalent about growing up and leaving their babyhood behind, and for this reason, change can be hard for them, says Dr. Widome. But once they master a new skill, whether it's giving up diapers or a bottle or moving from a crib to a bed, they have a real sense of pride and accomplishment.
Child-proof your house.
Do a safety sweep of every room your toddler can access. Secure the stairs with gates at the top and bottom, bolt bookshelves and televisions to the wall, and put safety latches on dresser drawers so he can’t pull them out and use them to climb. Some experts suggest putting a gate on your child’s door or locking it, but you have to think about fire safety. As an alternative, you can use a monitor or attach bells to the door to alert you when he’s leaving the room.
Don’t expect an easy transition to a toddler bed.
Your child might cry and insist he wants his crib back. Stay positive and expect it to take a month or two for him to fully adjust to his new digs. His newfound freedom may also lead him to take lots of excursions. (You put your child to bed and he comes out. You put him back in bed and he comes back out.) Just calmly return him to bed and leave the room as quickly as you can. Since there’s a chance he can’t quite handle a big bed yet, it’s a good idea to hang on to the crib. A temporary return to it, if necessary, is no big deal: Toddlers mature quickly, and your child might be ready in another month or two. Be patient, and don’t rush this important transition.