Whether your toddler loves her crib or is eager to jump out of it at the first opportunity, at some point, she'll be ready to graduate to a big-kid bed. When is the best time to make the transition, and how can you do it smoothly and safely? Here are suggestions from the experts.
Unlike some developmental milestones of early childhood, such as learning to use the potty or starting solids, the move from crib to bed doesn't involve a checklist of signs indicating that your child is ready. The one overriding concern is safety. As a general rule, parents should move a baby from a crib to a bed before he is able to climb out of it on his own and possibly hurt himself, says Mark Widome, MD, a professor of pediatrics at Penn State Children's Hospital in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Most toddlers have the ability to hop over the crib rail when they are about 35 inches tall and between 18 and 24 months of age. Of course, some babies are particularly agile and will attempt to climb out sooner (at which point they should be moved to a bed), while less adventurous types will not try to climb out at all.
If your toddler is comfortable in his crib and not a climber, then it's okay to let him sleep there past the age of 2 — just as long as you're mindful of his safety, says Jack Walsh, executive director of the Danny Foundation, an organization dedicated to crib and child-product safety. But the longer a baby stays in his crib, Walsh adds, the more emotionally attached to it he may become and the harder it may be for him to make the transition.
The other big factor that often determines when a child makes the move is the expected arrival of a new sibling. Extra care will be required if this is the reason for the transition, especially if the child likes her crib and hasn't shown any interest in getting out of it. This is a sensitive time for an older child and you don't want to make her feel as if she's being displaced, says Pamela High, MD, medical director of the Infant Development Center at Women and Infants' Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.
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If you need your toddler's crib for baby number two (or three), begin the process one to two months before the new baby is due to arrive, assuming that your toddler is at least 18 months old, says Dr. Widome. The idea is to get your older child comfortably situated in his new bed as far in advance as possible so that he thinks of the crib as neutral territory — and not his sleeping spot — when the younger sibling arrives. If possible, dismantle the crib or store it in a room where it's out of sight, suggests Dr. Widome. Or aim to make the crib "unsleepable" by filling it with stuffed animals, toys, and blankets.
Regardless of the reason for the switch, you'll ideally want to do it at a time when there are no other major changes going on in your child's life, says Dr. Widome. For instance, avoid making the move if your child is in the throes of toilet training, giving up a pacifier, or getting used to a new child-care arrangement.
Once you've made up your mind that the time is right, you'll have to decide what type of bed your child will be comfortable in. Some parents of young toddlers simply put their child's crib mattresses on the floor for a while to ease the transition, says Dr. High. Others buy a twin mattress and put it on the floor or set it atop box springs. Some parents spring for a toddler bed, which is generally low to the ground and can accommodate an existing crib mattress. They often come in the form of cars, castles, or other appealing shapes.
Toddler beds are fine, says Dr. Widome, but they're not safety necessities. You can always install a removable guardrail on a twin bed to keep your toddler from falling out of it.
Whichever bed you choose, let your child help pick out kid-friendly sheets, pillowcases, and comforters, and personalize the space with her favorite stuffed animals. Once the bed is home and in your child's room, however, don't be surprised if your little one doesn't want to sleep in it. It might be necessary to actually remove the crib from your child's room when the new bed arrives. It can be stressful for a toddler to have to choose between sleeping in her crib (and wanting to be a baby) and sleeping in her bed (and wanting to be a kid). If you relieve a child from making that choice, says Dr. Widome, it makes it easier for everyone. Plus, when the crib is out of sight, it's usually out of mind.
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Finally, as in any time of transition, it helps to establish and follow a predictable bedtime routine, says Dr. High. This routine — which can involve reading a story, talking about your child's day, or praying — should be a soothing experience for both of you and leave your child looking forward to going to bed.
A consistent bedtime ritual should also help a young child to feel grounded. Toddlers are often ambivalent about growing up and leaving their babyhood behind, and for this reason, change can be hard for them, says Dr. Widome. But once they master a new skill, whether it's giving up diapers or a bottle or moving from a crib to a bed, they have a real sense of pride and accomplishment.
So whether your child takes to his new bed right away or needs some time to warm up to it, know that he's taking an important step forward in his development and toward becoming a fun and independent "big kid."