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Parenting Playbook: When To Transition To A Toddler Bed

Parenting Playbook is a monthly column from Forbes Vetted that offers strategies and tactics to help you tackle parenthood like a pro.

Sleep is a precious commodity when you’re a parent. We all want more of it, and it may feel like no one is getting enough of it, so risking a sleep regression with a big move to a big kid bed can be scary for everyone. While most sleep experts advise keeping your kid in a crib as long as possible, there will come a time when it’s simply not safe to do so anymore. For example, it can be downright dangerous when your little one figures out how to climb out—and no one needs a late-night trip to the ER.

To figure out when and how to transition your toddler out of a crib successfully and without tons of tears (from you or them), we spoke with two pediatric sleep experts to get the lowdown on everything from timing it right to mentally preparing your little one for the move, as well as how to stay sane and keep them in the bed once you’ve made it that far.

When Should You Transition Your Toddler To A Toddler Bed?

Nationally certified pediatric sleep consultant Jessica Berk of Awesome Little Sleepers (she’s helped high-profile parents like Amy Schumer and Katelyn Brown sleep again) recommends parents wait until kids are at least 3 years old to transition them out of the crib and into a toddler bed.

“I say 3 because it takes a little bit of maturity for kids to handle the freedom of sleeping in an open bed and resist the temptation to get up and run around the house,” agrees Jessica Bryant, a Better Sleep Council representative and pediatric sleep expert. “Before 2.5 years old, children do not have the ability to understand the direction ‘stay in bed.’”

While you may be tempted to transition a toddler sooner, perhaps because there’s a new sibling on the way and you’d rather not purchase another crib (I know, I’ve been there), this can be a safety issue and can really backfire if you don’t have a plan in place.

“I have heard stories of parents finding their 2-year-olds downstairs in the kitchen and even in the garage at 2 a.m.,” says Berk, who adds that “young kids are the safest sleeping in a crib.” Moreover, this can set up bad sleep habits for the future, as parents may find themselves “suddenly walking their toddler back to their room 26 times at bedtime or feeling like they have to stay in the room until they fall asleep which was not part of their original plan.”

Signs Your Child Is Ready To Transition

“If you are a few months away from bringing home a new baby, you think a bed will magically fix your toddler’s bad sleep or other people are telling you your child should be out of a crib, it’s not the time to transition,” says Bryant. So how do you know when your toddler is actually ready to ditch the crib for good? Here are a few signs:

They’re Sleeping Through The Night

Berk tells us kids are ready to transition to a toddler bed once they’re sleeping well through the night (10-11 hours straight) in the crib and they’re mature enough to understand that they need to stay in their bed, which is usually around 3 years of age or older.

They’re Climbing Out Of The Crib

Of course, if your child is a force of nature like my middle one was (not even a sleep sack could stop her) and can’t be contained, then it’s safest to go ahead and move to a toddler bed to prevent falls. However, “some parents mistakenly think that kids attempting to climb out of the crib is a sign that it’s time to switch to a bed,” says Berk, but she encourages parents to try some of the following tricks to keep kids safely sleeping in the crib until at least 3 years old.

  • A sleep sack: “Dress the child in a sleep sack or wearable blanket so their legs can’t spread wide enough to climb out,” advises Berk. Some parents even recommend putting the sleep sack on backward to make it harder for your toddler to unzip and remove.
  • Turn the crib around: If your crib has one side taller than the other, turn it around so the taller side is facing out. Berk also says if there’s a decorative edge against the wall making the front side higher that this can act as a visual deterrent.
  • Lower the mattress: “Make sure the crib mattress is on the lowest setting,” says Berk. “Some families have success keeping their toddler in the crib longer by moving the mattress to the floor, but parents should check the guidelines from their crib manufacturer before doing so. The main concern is we don't want there to be a gap between the mattress and the crib frame where a child's leg or arm could get stuck.”

They’re Getting Too Big

According to Bryant, your toddler's height can signal readiness for a larger sleep space. “Often toddlers who are 3 feet tall are running out of space in the crib,” she says.

Expert Tips On How To Transition Your Toddler Out Of A Crib

The good news is, most toddlers are super pumped about the possibility of moving to a “big kid” bed, especially if they get to deck it out with all the Paw Patrol bedding their little heart desires. Some toddlers, especially those with older siblings, may even ask you directly. To ensure things go as smoothly as possible and it’s not a total nightmare (warning: the first few nights will probably be rough), try implementing these expert tips.

Involve Them In The Process

Teamwork makes the dream work, literally. Bryant suggests involving toddlers in the process of setting up their new bed from the pillow case to the way their favorite stuffed animals and comfort objects are arranged on the bed. You can even bring your toddler to the store to pick out fun, new bedding that will get them excited about their new sleep space. Berk also recommends getting prepared with bedtime stories about “big kid” beds.

Build Them Up

A week prior to the move, Bryant says to praise your child for what they do well already. For example, you can say, “‘I am so proud of you for staying in your bed all night and resting your body,’ even though they are still in a crib and don’t have an option to get out,” she says. “Or ‘I am proud of you for laying quietly and waiting for sleep to come on. I am proud of you for finding your blanket and covering back up when you woke up in the night.’” These are all skills toddlers need to use when they have more freedom after the bed transition, points out Bryant.

Be Empathetic But Strong

Change is hard, especially for little ones with big feelings. “A toddler sees the transition as all of the sudden they are going from the comfort and cocoon-like restrictive space of their crib to having the freedom to access their entire room. This is new to their sensory system and for some children this can be overwhelming,” explains Bryant.

“Young children are experts at the patterns in their lives, so when the pattern changes and they can't predict what is coming next they start testing the new boundary,” she says. It can be helpful to acknowledge their feelings but stay strong with the boundaries you set, for example, not laying with your child until they fall asleep each night or fetching five snacks.

Create Sleep Jobs

Yes, really. “This strategy is a favorite among parents who work with me to create crib to bed transition plans because they are shocked how much their children love having jobs and how this strategy impacts the success of their bed transition,” says Bryant.

So what are sleep jobs exactly? “They can be any combination of lay quietly, stay in bed, close your eyes and/or stay in bed from bedtime to morning.” Create a chart and hang it on the wall. “Including your family's wake up signal on the chart is reassuring for your child,” she says. “Some examples of morning wake ups signals are: Parent comes to get you, the sun comes up, or your smart bulb lamp light comes on.”

If you’re in the market for a smart light that also has white noise and whole host of other helpful features, our team loves the Hatch Rest+. You can program the Hatch to glow the color of your choice in the morning, as a signal that let’s your little one know it’s okay to get up.

Hatch Rest+ (2nd Gen)

Set Their Room Up For Success

Blackout curtains for naps and early risers? Check. Sound machine? Check. Favorite stuffy or blanket? Check. “Setting a toddler's room up for sleep success can also include installing smart bulbs so that you can control the lights in your child's room from your phone, moving their sound machine safely out of reach, and adding cozy soft zipper-type bedding that entices your child to stay in bed and is easy to make up in the morning,” says Bryant.

“For larger beds or beds that are high off the ground, parents might want to have a tuckable bumper or a step stool to help the child get in or out of bed.” It’s important to make sure large furniture like dressers are anchored to the wall and that the room is childproofed for them to safely explore. If you need to minimize or fully remove any toys that may keep them up way too late or simply sabotage bedtime, that’s okay too.

Be Consistent

Consistency is key, even when you’re exhausted. Bryant advises sticking to your plan each night for at least five to seven nights until you see your child be able to predict their new sleep routine in their bed. Praise your child on what sleep job they are doing well each morning to remind them you are watching and seeing the work they are doing transitioning to their new bed.

Stall tactics, or as Bryant refers to them, “questioning to find the boundary,” like asking for food or water or one last kiss are totally normal. “It’s also normal for a toddler to get out of bed and explore, to call for the parent, ask them to stay, stick their hands under the door and to fall asleep on the floor,” she notes. “Answering the questions with no, that doesn’t help you sleep healthy, or sleeping with you is not a choice, closes the question loop for the child and outlines the boundary. When the child feels the boundary they feel safe.”

Should You Childproof Your Toddler’s Bedroom Door?

This is a hotly debated topic amongst parents, with some considering it essential for their child’s safety (and their own sanity), and others likening it to locking their child up. Rest assured, both our pediatric sleep experts agree childproofing the door can actually be comforting for your toddler and help keep them safe.

“When a child first transitions to a bed from a crib, using a physical barrier at the door like a baby gate may be a good option especially if the child is younger than 3 years old,” says Berk. Leaving a video monitor in the room can also help parents keep an eye on what's going on in the room, she says

Bryant agrees. “Going from the square footage of their crib to suddenly being able to access the whole house is overwhelming for a toddler's brain,” she says. “Childproofing the door sets the room up like a larger crib and keeps the environment simple enough for the toddler to be successful as they adapt to how it feels to sleep in a new bed with the freedom to leave it for the first time.”

Our Favorite Items For The Transition From Crib To Bed

A Tot-Size Blanket Available In Many Cute Prints

Loulou Lollipop Muslin Quilt Blanket

Measuring 47 x 47 inches, these bamboo and cotton muslin blankets are an ideal size for a toddler bed. There are many adorable prints, so hopefully you can find one your toddler is excited to be tucked in under.


A Favorite Toddler Bed

Pottery Barn Kids Shelter Bed

This beautiful toddler bed has smooth features and raised sides, to help stop little ones from rolling out. We also love the excellent quality, and Greenguard Gold certification—meaning it won’t off-gas any concerning fumes.


The Top Toddler Pillow

MOST POPULAR

Coop The Original Toddler Adjustable Pillow

This adjustable option tops our list of the best toddler pillows. You can take out filling or add more to find the perfect level of softness to cradle your child’s head. We also love that the case can’t be easily unzipped by kids—but an adult can open it as needed with the assistance of a paperclip.


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