Freedom: Transitioning to a Big Bed

In honor of the upcoming 4th of July holiday, I wanted to dedicate this blog to FREEDOM. Specifically, the freedom that comes with the transition out of the crib and into a big bed. This is one of the most common topics I get asked about for toddlers. When it comes to making the transition from a crib to a big-kid bed, there are two questions that need to be answered: the first is WHEN, and the second is HOW.

If you are reading this on my website, chances are that you came here looking for some advice about teaching your little one the skills he or she needs to sleep through the night. If that is the case, then the answer to the question of “When” is, quite simply, “Not now.”

There are two reasons why I say to wait to move out of the crib. The first reason is because there is absolutely no rush to get your toddler out of her crib and into a bed. I have seen plenty of 3-year-olds (my own included) sleeping happily in a crib. None of the parents I’ve worked with ever told me, “I wish we’d transitioned her to a big kid bed earlier.”

There is a theory out there that suggests the longer a child is in a crib, the more attached they grow to it, and the tougher it is for them to make the transition when they finally do, but that theory is, for lack of a better word, wrong.

I recommend waiting as close to age 3 as possible for this transition, and really, really would not recommend moving a toddler any younger than 2 ½ years old out of the crib. The reason for this is because 2-year-olds are notorious for lacking self-control and are just now learning that their behavior can elicit reactions from you. It is a very difficult concept for a 2-year-old to understand that just because they can get out of bed, does not mean they are allowed to do so. This kind of abstract concept is much better understood at age 3 when they have a clear understanding of rules, boundaries, and consequences.

A word of caution here, many, many parents make the mistake of transitioning to a big bed once their toddler is climbing out of the crib. I understand there are safety risks in this situation, but if your toddler is younger than 2 ½ years old, I would encourage you to find a way to extend the life of the crib by making it harder for him or her to climb out. A sleep sack on a toddler can be a good solution because she won’t be able to lift her leg over the rail to climb out.

An even better solution, which mostly applies to convertible cribs, is to take out the platform the mattress sits on and drop the mattress all the way to the floor (still within the four rails of the crib). If this creates a gap between the mattress and the railings, then elevate the mattress just enough to close the gap. It’s important that the mattress can not move or slip away from the confines of the crib. Lowering the mattress to the floor can add an extra 10 inches or so, making it nearly impossible for your toddler to climb out. Another good option is to turn the crib around so the highest railing is facing out (usually the headboard portion on a convertible crib) and the shorter side is now against the wall. In short, extend your toddler’s stay in the crib as long as possible, as long as you can find a safe way to do so.

The second reason to wait on moving to a big bed is if you are about to start sleep training. There’s going to be a period of adjustment as your toddler learns to fall asleep independently, and that’s going to take a little getting used to. During this adventure, it’s comforting for your little one to have a familiar place to sleep. Her bedroom, her sheets, her lovie, her crib, everything that can stay the same should stay the same until she’s mastered the skills to fall asleep on her own.

I should add here, just in case you are considering sleep training, that switching to a big kid bed is going to be a whole lot easier if your little one is already sleeping through the night. A toddler who is well rested and able to fall asleep independently is far less likely to leave their room at night, which is the single biggest issue that parents run into when they move their little ones out of the crib.

Alright, so let’s assume that either your little one is already falling asleep on their own and sleeping through the night, or that, you've determined that your toddler is ready to handle this new responsibility of FREEDOM when it comes to sleep time.

Step number one is preparation. You are going to want to fill your little one in on what’s happening. Explain to him that he is going to be making the move into the new bed, set a date, and let him know when the switch is going to happen. When you explain what’s happening to your toddler, make sure you do it with a positive spin.

So, there’s a bit of finessing to do here. On the one hand, you want to prepare your toddler for the switch, but at the same time, you don’t want to make a huge production out of it that may make your child anxious about the change. Turning the whole thing into a monumental occasion puts a lot of pressure on your child and is likely to stress him out a bit.

Now that it’s time to actually make the trip to Ikea and pick out the hardware, be sure to bring your toddler along. Giving your child some input into which bed she wants, what sheets she likes, what pillows feel the most comfortable, will obviously ensure that she gets something she likes, but will also help her feel a sense of ownership over her new bed, which can work wonders in easing the transition.

Once the bed is put together and the sheets are on, you’ll want to keep the bed in the same place the crib used to be. In fact, you’ll want to keep just about everything exactly as it was in your toddler’s room except for the new bed. This is a big change, so try not to make any unnecessary additional changes.

Consistency in routine is doubly important for the schedule on the night of the big event. When you are getting your toddler ready for bed on that first night, don’t alter the routine, don’t switch up bedtime, don’t try to give her a new food at dinner. Keep everything as predictable and mundane as possible. Predictability is incredibly comforting to toddlers, so the consistency of her routine will help ease the transition.

Again, you don’t need to make a production out of it. Tell her you are proud of her, but try to avoid statements like, “What a big girl you are now!” Toddlers are typically in a perpetual state of uncertainty about whether or not they want to do this whole “growing up” thing, and we want to keep things as low-key as we can.

I recommend teaching your little one that once the lights are out, they are expected to lay quietly, just like they do in the crib. It is not helpful to yell at your toddler to “GO TO SLEEP” as you really can’t force another person to fall asleep on command. But, if you can manage the stalling behavior by teaching him to LAY QUIETLY, it is much more likely he will drift off to sleep.

Once your toddler has been put to bed and the lights have been turned out, there are a few different scenarios that can play out:

  • Scenario 1 - He adapts immediately to his new bed and he doesn’t test the rules whatsoever. In this case, celebrate heartily. You are among the very lucky minority.

  • Scenario 2 - Your little one seems to adapt immediately but, after a week or two, starts leaving her room, playing with her toys, or calling for mom to come back in several times a night.

  • Scenario 3 - Your toddler starts doing all of those things the very first night.

The solution to the latter two of these situations is the same: Offer a warning when your toddler demonstrates the unwanted behavior, tell him what the consequence is going to be if he does it again, and then follow through with that consequence if and when he repeats the unwanted behavior.

Chances are that you’ve already discovered a consequence that works on your toddler, and I strongly suggest you keep that in place. Again, we don’t want anything to change except for the bed, so keep doing whatever you’ve been doing up until now in regards to managing behavior.

In case you haven’t discovered an effective consequence yet, I find that taking the lovie away for a short period of time or closing the door all the way are both pretty functional without putting your toddler into hysterics. Start by taking the lovie away or closing the door for 1 minute. Then take the lovie back or crack the door again and remind him that if he does the unwanted behavior again, you will take the lovie again or close the door again. For each repeat offense, increase the length of time that the door stays closed or the lovie stays out of the bed by 1 minute.

In a nutshell, you need to make this change intentionally and with clear boundaries and consequences already planned out. Be prepared for your toddler to test boundaries. Explain what’s happening to your little one, keep things light, set the expectations and enforce the rules. It’s not always going to be easy, but with consistency, your toddler will likely learn the boundaries quickly.

One final thought to keep in mind... As much as we’re trying to keep this transition as stress-free and smooth as we can, remember this: You are the boss. It’s almost a mathematical certainty that your little one is going to buck a bit about this change. She’ll probably leave her room a lot, she’ll call for you to come in, ask for a glass of water, and more than anything, say that she wants to go back to sleeping in her crib.

It’s crucial that you hold your ground every step of the way here, especially during the first few weeks. If you start bending the rules and allowing her to climb into bed with you, or letting her get back into the crib, this process may go on for months.

Do not let your toddler take the lead on this process. This change will go much more smoothly with an adult guiding the ship, so maintain an air of calm authority, and enforce the rules firmly and consistently. With proper planning and execution, this process can be breeze!

If you’ve already tried transitioning to a big bed and it’s been a bit of a disaster or you are now finding that your toddler sleeps worse than before, please book a free evaluation with me to find out how Dream Factory Sleep Solutions can help you solve your child’s sleep challenges once and for all!

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