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.
Now, 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 they need to sleep through the night.
And if that’s the case, then the answer to the question of “When” is, quite simply, “Not now.”
There are two reasons why I say this. The first is because there is absolutely no rush to get your toddler out of their crib and into a bed. I have seen plenty of 3-year olds sleeping happily in a crib and none of the clients I’ve worked with ever told me, “ I wish we’d transitioned him 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.
The second reason is that if you are about to start sleep training, there is going to be a period of adjustment as your toddler learns to fall asleep independently, and that is 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, for whatever reason, you are in a hurry to get your toddler out of the crib and into a bed.
Step number one is preparation. First you will want to fill your little one in on what is happening. Explain to them that they are going to be making the move into the new bed, set a date, and let them 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 tight-wire act to be performed 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. T urning the whole thing into a monumental occasion puts a lot of pressure on your child and is likely to stress them 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.
If you are really adventurous, you can even let your little one help you put the new bed together, although speaking from personal experience, I suggest that you do, you know, literally anything else.
So now that it’s put together and the sheets are on, you will want to keep the bed in the same place the crib used to be. In fact, you will 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.
This goes double 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.
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.
So now that 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 - She adapts immediately to her new bed and she 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 their room, playing with his toys, or calling for mom to come back in several times a night.
Scenario 3 - Your toddler starts doing everything of Scenario 2 on 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 her what the consequence is going to be if she does it again, and then follow up on that consequence if and when they repeat it.
Chances are that you have already discovered a consequence that works on your toddler, and I strongly suggest you keep that it 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 and closing the door all the way are both pretty functional without putting your toddler into hysterics. For each repeat offense, increase the length of time that the door stays closed or the lovie stays out of the bed.
That pretty much sums it up. Explain what is happening, keep things light, set the expectations and enforce the rules. It’s not always going to be easy, but it is pretty straightforward.
One final thought to keep in mind, as much as we are trying to keep this transition as stress-free and smooth as we can, remember this: You are the boss. It is almost a mathematical certainty that your little one is going to fuss a bit about this change. She will probably leave her room a lot, she will call for you to come in, ask for a glass of water, ask for lights on and then lights off, and more than anything, say that she wants to go back to sleeping in her crib.
It is 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 is going to go on for months.
So dig in your heels, maintain an air of calm, loving authority, and enforce the rules firmly and consistently. It may make you feel like a bit of a tyrant at times, but it will get your little one sleeping peacefully in her new bed a whole lot sooner.