The time has come. Your little one is ready to move out of the crib and into a bed. There are some tears (mostly yours) mixed with excitement. But how do you actually transition in a way that feels safe for you and your child? First stop was The Land of Nod for a bed and bedding that makes nighttime feel exciting….then we consulted sleep experts, Jennifer Waldburger, MSW and Jill Spivack, LCSW, Co-Founders of Sleepy Planet Parenting and authors of “The Sleep Easy Solution” to advise on their top 7 tips.
Bed and Bedding, Land of Nod
“Although it may be tempting to begin thinking about transitioning to a “big bed,” we do not recommend doing so until age three. Unless your child is climbing out of his crib or needs more space than a crib can provide because his body is growing quickly, it’s better to keep him in the crib, which allows him to feel safely contained and babylike. This way, your child can feel comfortable taking giant developmental leaps forward during the day but still regress to the coziness and security of his good old crib at night. Also, until age three, toddlers are extremely impulsive, and your child’s difficulty in understanding and being able to follow directions or rules (like staying in bed all night) will make sleeping in a bed challenging at best. If you transition to a bed before age three, you can pretty much plan on waking up to a little visitor next to your bed each night.
If your child is climbing out of the crib, however, you have a safety issue. Before putting your child into a bed, make sure that there aren’t any other big changes going on in his life simultaneously. For instance, if your child is in the middle of potty training, you have a new baby coming (within two months), preschool is about to begin, or you’ve just moved or are about to, these are not good times to make the change.”
To help your child transition smoothly to sleeping in a bed, follow these steps:
Bed and Bedding, Land of Nod
Step 1: Safety proof.
Adequately safety proof your child’s room and any adjacent areas he may be able to wander into in the middle of the night. You’ll want to secure tops of stairs, windows that are normally ajar, or stepstools that can be tripped over. If you feel concerned that your child will be unsafe if he wanders, install an extra tall safety gate at your child’s door to prevent this. You can install a small night-light in your child’s room to help him orient himself to his new bed should he wake in the night, and to avoid any bumps or bruises if he should decide to get up and walk around his room.
Step 2: A mattress shopping we will go.
Go to the mattress store, and have your child help you pick out the mattress or bed. Although many families like the “wow” factor of a racing car or princess bed, it’s not necessary to buy a frame at this point; all you need is a twin-size mattress and box spring and some safety rails for the side. This new bed should sit low on the floor for quite some time as your child adjusts to being in her own bed and so there won’t be a risk of her falling off; she’ll also be able to get in and out of bed more easily. Get some fun new sheets, or a special pillowcase. Avoid labeling this new bed a “big boy” or “big girl” bed, as this language can frighten a child who already feels anxious about taking leaps forward in her development. Refer to it instead as simply “your new bed.”
Step 3: Buy a bed buddy.
Allow your child to pick out a special “Mommy Bear” or “Daddy Bear” to sleep with in the new bed. This may feel like an acceptable alternative to you getting in bed to sleep with him. When you put your child to sleep, remind him that “Mommy Bear” is going to cuddle with him all night, and when he wakes up, Mommy or Daddy will come to get him.
Step 4: Dismantle the crib (together!).
Once the bed comes home, ask your child to help you to take down the crib. This way, your child will feel part of the transition process and will also be able to say good-bye to the crib. Encouraging her to hold a toy screwdriver is sometimes enough to do the trick! Let your child help you set up her new bed and choose items she’d like to have in bed with her. Feel free to limit these items to one or two as having sixty-two stuffed animals in bed may be a bit stimulating in the middle of the night.
Step 5: Set up the bed.
Put the bed in a corner of your child’s room so that the head and side of the bed are flush against the wall for protection. Add a safety rail to the exposed side of the bed. Your child will feel safely contained this way, just as he did in his crib.
Step 6: Explain the rules of bedtime.
If your child is verbal, before the first night of sleeping in the bed, go over the rules of bedtime with her. You could say, for example, “You’ll be sleeping in your bed now, so we’ll do our book, song, and snuggle, and then you will sleep in your bed all night long. Then, when the sun is nice and bright, you can let us know and we will come to get you.
Step 7: Do your bedtime routine.
The first few nights your child is sleeping in his new bed, tack on an extra 10 or 15 minutes of reading time together, and include lots of holding and cuddling to help him settle into feeling comfortable. Also, make sure to play in the room during the day, if you don’t do this already, to remind your child that his room is a place where he can feel safe and have fun and isn’t just a place where he’s separating from you.
If your child seems excited about the new bed and sleeps easily, you’re one of those lucky people who has made this transition easily. If you’re having a bumpy start, keep reading.
Sleeping in the Room with Your Child
If your child is having trouble transitioning from his crib to a bed, then one parent or the other (not both) can sleep in the room with him for a couple of nights. It’s best not to start the habit of sleeping in bed with your child, but rather to set up a bed on the floor. Say to your child, “Mommy (or Daddy) is going to sleep with you in your room for a couple of nights to help you get used to sleeping in your new bed.”
If your child pops out of bed as you’re sleeping in there, simply return him to his bed and explain that he needs to sleep in his bed, and you’ll sleep in yours. After the first couple of times, try to keep talking to a minimum, or don’t talk at all, as doing so may continue to reinforce your child’s getting out of bed. He may get out of bed lots of times the first night! Just continue to help him back each time.
You will have to go to sleep when your child does, and sleep in the room all night long. If he wakes up and finds that you’re not there, he’ll feel anxious about sleeping in his new bed, not to mention worried that he can’t count on you doing what you say you will. Don’t worry. You’ll need to stay only a night or two–until your child is sleeping soundly through the night.
Leaving the Room
Once your child begins to sleep soundly through the night, you can experiment with trying to leave the room. On the first night that you’re going to try to leave, tell your child during her bedtime routine that tonight, you’re going to read and cuddle and then she’ll go to sleep in her bed and you’ll sleep in your bed in the other room.
If your child protests and comes out of the room, walk her calmly back into her room, put her in her bed and leave the room quickly, saying “Goodnight, sweetie. Stay in bed now.” If she continues to come out of the room, keep walking her back in consistently until she goes to sleep. She may try to come out fifty times, but she will eventually go to sleep if you stay consistent. Your consistent response will pay off because your child will realize there is no getting around the rule of staying in her bed. If your child sleeps through the night at that point, praise her the next day, make sure to make a big deal to important adults in her life that she did such a good job (grandparents, neighbors, teachers), and continue with the new routine the next night. She may test you again briefly, but she will soon learn to stay in bed and go to sleep.
To learn more, visit Sleepy Planet Parenting here.
Photography Credit: Miha Matei