When Paul Ryan, of Thornwood, New York, discovered that his 2-year-old son, Tim, had climbed out of his crib in the middle of the night, he knew it was time for the toddler to switch to a bed. "We were just lucky he didn't hurt himself," Ryan says.
Like Tim, many kids between the ages of 2 and 3 are ready to make the move to a bed, and climbing out (or trying to) is a clear sign that it's time. "Fortunately, most kids suffer only minor bumps or bruises when they take a spill climbing out of a crib," reports Alan Kulberg, M.D., a pediatrician in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, "but you don't want to risk serious injury or have your child wandering around in a room that's not childproofed."
Even if your child still seems content in his crib, he may have outgrown it. If he's 35 inches tall or the railing reaches midchest level, he could scale the crib railing at any time -- and probably needs more room to sleep comfortably too.
Another reason many families make the switch is the imminent arrival of a new baby who's going to need a place to sleep. But while most toddlers are thrilled by the status of a big-kid bed, some may be reluctant to give up the cozy security of the crib. "It takes some time for them to feel comfortable in a less enclosed space," says Dr. Kulberg. And some kids feel ambivalent about leaving this vestige of babyhood behind. But by planning ahead and anticipating the trouble spots, you can make the transition trauma-free.
Talk About a Bed While Your Child is Still in the Crib
Start the conversation casually. Say something like "You're getting so big. Pretty soon, we're going to have to get you a big-boy bed, like the one Mommy and Daddy sleep in." By making the bed a symbol of maturity, you can turn the move into a celebration, not a loss, says Pam Shaw, M.D., a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Kansas Medical Center, in Kansas City. It's especially important to emphasize your child's grown-up status if you're expecting a new baby. "This way, you keep the focus on the older child and avoid the unintentional message of 'We're having a new baby, so you have to move,'" says Dr. Shaw.
It's definitely better not to wait until the new baby arrives to make the switch. "Ideally, you want a gap of a couple of months between the time a toddler leaves his crib and the time the new brother or sister moves into it, particularly if they're going to be sharing a room," notes Vanessa K. Jensen, Psy.D., head of pediatric psychology at the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio.
To help your child feel more involved in the change, let her pick out her own bedding. Choosing Little Mermaid sheets or a comforter in her favorite color can make her feel independent and grown-up. "When Heather and Connor picked out their own sheets, it made them feel it was their bed and not this thing my husband and I were forcing on them," says Maria Fisher, a mother of three children in Farmington, Utah. "In each case, by the time the bed arrived, my kids were excited about sleeping in it."
On the night you make the switch, dismantle the crib first and put it away; for many toddlers, out of sight is out of mind. If you don't want to take the crib apart because you'll need it for a new baby, Jensen suggests letting your child use it as a pretend bed for dolls or stuffed animals. "Putting her own 'babies' in it for a while will reinforce the idea that cribs are for infants and beds are for big kids," she advises. "Then you can casually mention that eventually the new baby will sleep there, too, without making a big deal out of it."
Be Firm About Staying in Bed
When it's bedtime, keep your nightly routine the same, though you may want to introduce a new ritual that incorporates the bed, like snuggling in it together while reading a story or tucking your child in with his new comforter.
If he seems anxious the first night, promise that you'll check on him in a few minutes -- and return when you said you would. If he gets out of bed to come find you, Dr. Shaw recommends saying calmly, "It's time to go back to bed" and walking him back to his room. If you give your child lots of extra attention or cave in to his demands for a story or glass of water, you're setting yourself up for weeks of bedtime chaos.
What if your child gets out of bed but doesn't leave his room? Should you make him get back under the covers? Surprisingly, most experts say no. "I recommend doing nothing if the room is properly childproofed," Dr. Shaw says. "Most kids will fall asleep on their own when they're ready. And chances are, after a few nights, they'll settle down right away."
If, despite all your preparations, your child insists that he still wants to sleep in his crib, Dr. Shaw recommends standing firm. "Letting a child go back to sleeping in the crib is not a good solution, especially if he might fall out and get hurt," she notes. However, if prolonged crying continues for longer than two weeks, consider whether there are other stresses in his life that are making the transition difficult, such as a new day-care teacher or the death of a grandparent. Helping him cope will probably solve the bedtime problem as well.
Still, most 2-year-olds rise to the challenge of sleeping in a real bed. "The vast majority are eager to make the switch," says Jensen. "Doing what the big kids do is a tangible sign of the independence they've been striving for."