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Toddlers and their milestones seem to move at the speed of light. Before you know it, your child is speaking in sentences, learning to run and jump, and building teetering block towers (only to knock them down again). One of the biggest milestones at this age can also be the most challenging: transitioning from a crib to a “big kid” bed.
“We were worried about lots of up-and-down traffic at night and in the morning,” confesses Cheryl Oliver. Though her kids are now 14 and 5, she remembers the toddler years well.
But the toddler-bed transition doesn’t have to be troubling. In fact, it can be downright fun. “When Will was 2, we transitioned him to his own ‘big boy’ bed, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience,” says Lindsay Fisher, mom to 10-year-old Jack and 3-year-old Will. “He slept through the night and was so proud of himself in the morning.”
Here are some ways to make the toddler-bed transition a smooth one:
Don’t worry, be happy
When parents are anxious about the transition to a toddler bed, they can unwittingly pass on their anxiety to their child, says psychologist and mom Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. “Children are like sponges, and they pick up on our fears and anxieties,” she says. Do your best not to transmit your nerves to your tot — talk about the new bed as an exciting new step, not a worrisome obligation.
Signs of readiness
Climbing out of the crib, potty training, and becoming interested in toddler beds are signs that your child may be ready. And while you don’t want to ditch the crib prematurely, you also don’t want to wait too long, or you may find yourself in a stressful situation where you need to get your child out of the crib in a hurry (because a new sibling needs it, for example). When a new baby needs the crib, Lombardo recommends making the switch at least a month before the birth, to give the older child time to adjust to the change.
Toddlers are notoriously hungry for more independence and personal power, so give them some control over the transition. Allow tots to pick out their new bedding or choose which toys get to come to the new bed. “We asked Will to be a part of setting up his new big boy room. He picked out his bedding, Thomas the Tank engine, of course, and he got to pick out special pajamas for his first night,” says Fisher.
If your child leaves his new bed in the middle of the night (or if you’re worried that he will), install a baby gate at his bedroom door. When you hear him get up, return him to his bed promptly, every time. In some children, this behavior can continue for several weeks. Be consistent. Once your child realizes he won’t be rewarded with parental interaction or be able to leave his room once he’s in bed, he’ll be more likely to stay put and sleep through the night.
To help your child maintain positive associations with his new bed, never use it as a place for punishment or time-out. It’s better and more effective to reward positive behavior, says Lombardo. Sticker charts, special outings, or a visit to your child’s favorite playground are good options. “When Will slept all night in his new bed, we made him a special breakfast the next day to acknowledge his accomplishment!” says Fisher.
At naptime, opportunistic toddlers may capitalize on their newfound freedom by refusing to stay in bed. “Often, kids do fine with their new bed at bedtime — naps present a bigger issue,” says Lombardo. But most 2-year-olds still need a daily siesta. Best practices include creating a solid, consistent ritual around naps. Be sure to keep the bedroom dark and quiet during naptime, too.
Clock extra minutes
Kids in toddler beds may be more inclined to get up at dawn. Keep your early bird in bed a longer with a special clock that tells her when it’s time to start the day. “We bought a special alarm clock with nature sounds just before we converted to a toddler bed,” says Oliver. “She loved waiting for her alarm in the morning and getting up to press the reset button — no troubles with getting out of bed too early!”
Whatever you do, “don’t give in and allow your child to go back to the crib,” says Lombardo. Make this transition an exciting milestone for your little one, and the crib will soon be a thing of the past. On to the next adventure!
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health journalist and mom. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.