Transitioning from the Crib to a Big Bed - Sleephaven Sleep Consultation: Helping Tired Families Sleep

Perhaps you have a champion climber, a child who protests loudly at bedtime or one who fights naps in the day. You may be tempted to see a move out of the crib into a “big kid” bed as a solution to your child’s sleeping woes. But how do you know when your child is really ready to make the transition?


Maturity is Key

I advise parents to keep their child in the crib until 2.5 – 3 years of age, as long as it is safe to do so. Most children under 30 months do not have the capacity to understand that they need to stay in their own bed throughout the night. If your child wakes in the night, he will naturally come looking for you, and a toddler wandering the house at night becomes a safety concern. “But what if my son is younger and has figured out how to climb out of his crib?” you may ask. Try these tips:

  • Lower the mattress to the lowest setting. As long as the rail is at his chest level or higher, the crib remains a safe sleep option.
  • Use a sleep sack. If you need to, sew the sides of the sack to create a narrower bottom. Most children cannot figure out how to climb out of the crib if they cannot swing one leg up and over the rail.
  • Try anti-climbing sleepers:
  • Remove any climbing aids (such as larger stuffed animals) or bumper pads, if in place.
  • Use a kind but firm voice when he tries to lift his leg up and out.

If you have already transitioned a younger child to a bed, and are facing sleep challenges, you have a couple of options. You can put him back in the crib again. You may see this move as a step back (although in reality you are respecting his developmental capacity), but he won’t – especially if you speak about it in a positive light. Your second option is to treat the whole room as his sleep space, and place a child safety gate at the door. The gate becomes a visual reminder that this is where you want him to sleep until morning. Having access to the whole room during the night also means that you need to make sure that it is safe: no access to electrical outlets, no access to climbing structures (such as dressers or a change table) and no dangling cords from window coverings.

If you choose not to gate the door, then be prepared to walk your child back to his own room each time he wakes and arrives at your bedside in the night. You will need to be very consistent in your response, however, as he will quickly tune into any mixed messages.


Easing the Transition

What if you have a 2.5 or 3 year old who is clearly ready to make the move? He is showing interest in big kid beds or is voicing that he wants to sleep out of his crib? Talk it up. It is an exciting move, but one that comes with new responsibilities. Make sure that he knows what the new sleep rules will be. Give him a consistent message: “You are growing so big and are ready for your big-boy bed. Big boys need to learn to sleep in their big bed all night.” Using a Sleep Manners Chart and Sleep Story can be very helpful in communicating your expectations.

Let your child prepare for the move by helping to choose bedding for his new bed. Use a dim bedside light on a timer to remind him that it is “still sleep time” and that he can get up in the morning when his “wake up light” comes on.

You can leave the crib in the room while he gets used to his bigger bed – and give him the option of where he will sleep. Or, you can move the bed into the same spot previously occupied by the crib. Some parents choose to leave the side off the crib as an intermediate step, and put padding on the floor to cushion a fall. Bed rails will prevent a child from rolling out of the big bed, and some children actually prefer the sense of being “contained”.


Be Realistic

If you are welcoming a new baby into your family, make sure that your older one makes the move out of the crib either a few months before or a few months after baby’s arrival. Besides adjusting to the newest arrival, he may feel like he is being dislodged from his comforting and familiar crib.

Moving your child into a “big kid” bed won’t solve your sleep challenges. You need to decide if you want to work on sleep skills, weaning the bottle or breast, and weaning soother use at the same time as the adjustment to a new sleep space – or while your child is still contained safely in the crib. Some older children can handle the transitions all at once and are motivated to make the changes with the “carrot” of sleeping in a new bed. You know your child best.

Moving up to a big bed is a milestone for everyone! Here’s to a happy and safe transition.


Margot Byer
Sleephaven Sleep Consultation
Helping Tired Families Sleep
… in Edmonton, Alberta and beyond!