Transitioning Your Child to a Toddler Bed

Laura Markham's picture

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So he's giving up the crib? You've been to the store and picked out the cutest toddler bed? All of you are totally excited? Except instead of rolling over and falling asleep, the way he did in the crib, now he comes out every two minutes to find you? All evening long? And the next day he's a basket case because he's so exhausted?

Welcome to the Toddler bed. Kids love the new-found freedom. They can't help but test the limits.

So how can you get her to form the new habit of falling asleep in her new big-girl bed without losing your mind? Be aware, going into this transition, that this is a big move for your child and naturally makes her insecure.

Cultivate a sense of humor. Tell yourself this is a test to show what a patient parent you are. Don't expect to have much of an evening for this transitional week. Then, just stay calm and keep reinforcing the limit that it's bedtime. Here's how:

  1. Before you make the big transition, be sure your child has a regular bedtime routine. Then follow that exact routine when he moves to his new bed. (For more info on bedtime routines, see the Parenting Tip "Bedtime for Toddlers: Ten Steps to Sleep without Tears".)

  2. Introduce the subject by pointing out any friends or cousins with "big kid" beds. One great book to read is My Own Big Bed, by Anna Gossnickle Hines. Get him excited before you get the new bed.

  3. Don't initiate the transition from the crib while he's toilet training, or when you're moving to a new house. It might seem easiest not to move the crib, but that's more change than most little people can handle all at once, and you'll find it just isn't worth it.

  4. If you're moving your child to make room in the crib for a new sibling, be sure the transition occurs a good two months before you expect the new baby. You want your toddler to be happy in his new bed before he sees an interloper in his crib. (I would add that if your child is not really ready to leave his crib, you can save yourself and him a lot of grief by borrowing a second crib for awhile, until he's ready.)

  5. It's a good idea if the toddler bed can be in the same place where his crib was. If your kids will share the room, move the crib to a new place I the room if you can.

  6. If at all possible, let your child pick the bed. If someone is giving or loaning you a toddler bed, stress to your child that she gets Cousin Jane's bed now because she is almost as big as Cousin Jane. When the bed is delivered, let your child help unpack and assemble it.

  7. If you have the room, you can move directly to a twin bed rather than using the intermediate step of a toddler bed, but it works much better -- for both safety and coziness -- if you start off with the mattress on the floor rather than on a bedframe. You can add the bedframe in a couple of years.

  8. Make his new bed cozy, like a little den. It's important to make sure you use as many things from the crib as possible (blankets, for instance) so that he feels comfortable in the new bed. It's fine to let him pick out new superhero sheets, but his crib blanket is what he'll need most. Most kids love being surrounded by stuffed animals. Be sure to use guardrails, in addition to being more safe, they help kids feel more secure.

  9. If your routine does not include music, consider adding it. Many toddlers fall asleep more easily while listening to familiar, calming music. At the very least, the singing makes them feel less alone.

  10. On the big night, initiate bedtime an hour earlier than usual. Go through the normal bedtime routine. Then sit in the doorway of the room, reading with a booklight, while your child falls asleep. That way she feels your presence acutely, which will give her great reassurance. She doesn't need to get out of bed to find you, so she'll develop the habit of snuggling down and going to sleep rather than of getting up to look for you.

  11. If he tries to engage you in conversation, just say "We'll talk tomorrow. It's bedtime now." Keep your attitude positive, respectful, and detached. Be boring and consistent.

  12. While you're sitting in the doorway, if he starts to get out of bed, say "It's bedtime, you need to stay in bed. Please lie down." If he actually gets up, move your chair so you're sitting next to the bed and can gently push him back if he starts to get up. Stay calm, respectful, and empathic, as in "It's a big change, sleeping in your new bed. Soon you'll be used to it." But don't let him get out of bed. You don't want him developing that habit.

  13. If your child cries, comfort him. Empathize with him that this is all very new. Tell him that he needs to learn to sleep in his new bed, but that you will help him by staying nearby. Stay as close to the bed as you need to, to start, but hopefully you won't need to stay close enough to touch more than his hand. (If you do, he may wake up in the night looking for you.) This eases the transition and lets the child learn to fall asleep in the new bed.

  14. Give lots of praise when he does fall asleep in his own bed without trying to get out, and even for progress in the right direction. ("I noticed that I only had to remind you twice to stay in bed last night. I'm so proud of you. Soon you will remember all by yourself.")

  15. If you've been sitting by the bed until your child falls asleep, gradually move your chair further away until you're sitting in the doorway.

  16. If your little one has a hard time falling asleep night after night, consider the possibility that he's over-tired from falling asleep later than usual, and move his bedtime earlier. Toddlers have to pump themselves full of cortisol and adrenaline to stay up later than usual, and that makes it harder to fall asleep. Oddly enough, an earlier bedtime usually solves the problem when the child is just too wound-up to relax.

  17. Within a few days of your sitting in the doorway, your child will be falling asleep without trying to get out of bed, and you can begin leaving for longer periods of time. It helps to leave the chair in place, like a sentinel, to reassure your child if she looks for you.

  18. If your toddler just can't seem to fall asleep, you might consider letting her take books (not toys) to bed with her. If you have a nightlight, or enough light from the hall, she can "read" herself to sleep. Not a bad habit for her to develop!

Dr. Laura Markham