Your child learned to roll over, sit up, and walk at her own pace, and moving to a big-kid bed is no different: There isn't an ideal age at which it occurs. While most kids say adios to the crib around age 2 1/2, some do it as early as 18 months and others as late as 3 1/2. But unlike those other milestones, this one is largely up to you. How can you judge if your child is truly ready? Although there's no formula, experts suggest that you look for certain signs and then focus on making the switch as seamless and stress-free as possible.
The clearest indication that it's time to ditch the crib is that your child is climbing over the railing, since doing so could lead to a serious injury. Crib tents used to be a short-term solution for keeping toddlers in place, but they were pulled off the market last year when they were found to be a strangulation risk. "First try encouraging your child to stay in his crib by catching him the moment he starts to climb. Place pillows outside the crib for safety just in case," says Parents advisor Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night. You may also hear (or see) your child banging into the railings while he's sleeping, which may mean he's feeling cramped in the existing space. Certainly, he might see a friend or an older sibling using a bed and express interest in making the switch. One way to gauge his readiness: See how he does napping in someone else's toddler bed. If it goes smoothly, he's probably capable of doing it at home too.
Keep in mind that if your child is sleeping well and seems content in his crib, it's fine to keep him there. (As they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.) Moving to a bed prematurely could backfire and cause you both sleepless nights. In particular, avoid hurrying things along to free up his crib for the arrival of a new sibling. This could cause him to resent the baby and have negative feelings about his bed. "If you're in that situation, you can gain time by using a bassinet for your newborn," suggests Dr. Mindell.
Depending on your child's personality, you may want to talk about her new bed in advance of its arrival. "Some kids need lots of preparation for such changes, while others are very adaptable," says Lynn Davidson, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore, in the Bronx, New York. Make sure the switch doesn't coincide with any major breaks from the norm in her routine, such as moving to a new house or starting preschool. One big change at a time is plenty.
Once you've broached the subject, get your toddler used to the idea by reading children's books (such as Sesame Street's Big Enough for a Bed, by Apple Jordan) and convincing her how nice it will be ("You'll have so much more room in your comfy, big-kid bed"). Also give her some say in the decision by taking her shopping to pick out new sheets or a comforter.
As for the bed itself, know that it needs to meet Consumer Products Safety Council (CPSC) guidelines; find out more at cpsc.gov. Beyond that, your choice comes down to style, budget, and space considerations. If you're currently using a convertible crib, try reconfiguring it into a toddler bed; your child may hardly notice the difference. Many parents pick toddler beds because they're low to the ground for easy access and some have kid-friendly designs (race cars, princesses, etc.) that can ease the transition. Still, you might decide to move directly to a twin or even a double bed that your child can use for years to come. It's also a good idea to attach a side railing near the head to prevent your child from tumbling out while she sleeps. Make sure it also meets the CPSC's safety standards.
Whether you choose to throw a party when the exciting day arrives or to keep the event more low-key, try to make your child's sleep zone feel as familiar and safe as possible. "Keep his bedtime routine exactly the same," suggests Marc Weissbluth, M.D., author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. If possible, put the bed exactly where the crib was, and don't forget his lovey or special blanket.
A word of warning: Sooner or later your child will recognize his new freedom and roam outside his room when he should be fast asleep. To break this pattern, calmly tuck him back into bed. Provide an incentive for staying put (such as offering to make his favorite breakfast in the morning) and a negative consequence for repeated "curtain calls" (perhaps temporarily taking away his toy train set). For a chronic wanderer, you might consider installing a security gate in his doorway. "Locking the door can frighten a child, but closing a gate merely signals to him that it's time for bed," says Dr. Mindell. If you're consistent with your enforcement, he'll eventually get with the program.
If after a few days you find that the new bed isn't working well for your child, just switch him back to the crib for another month or two. He'll make the move eventually, and there's no point in either of you losing sleep over it in the meantime.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Parents magazine.