Moving to a big-kid bed is a huge moment for little ones and their parents. But it can also be a time for setbacks in bedtime routines, particularly if kids aren’t ready to make the change. To set you and your child up for success, it’s important to understand the readiness cues, and to set your little sleeper up for overnight success.
It’s hard to put a definitive time frame on the crib-to-bed transition. Many factors weigh in, such as the child’s temperament and mood, whether they have a sibling, and other external influences. There is, however, a general timeline for when it may be time to take a few steps back and wait longer before trying again.
Dr. Chris Winter, neurologist, Sleep.com advisor, and author of “The Rested Child” says, “If the timing is right, the transition should not be an issue beyond a few weeks.”
Managing your child’s expectations of what being a “big kid” is like can be exasperating for parents, too. Back when they were in a crib, kids were confined. With their newfound freedom, toddlers can be more likely to stall or get up after lights out, which disrupts everyone’s bedtime routine and can directly impact wake-up times. So rather than making a bumpy transition that leaves everyone grumpy, take notes from sleep specialists, who have learned the cues that hint towards your kid’s readiness for a crib-to-bed transition.
How to tell if your child is ready for a big kid bed
Is your child almost 3 years old?
Most experts agree that waiting until the age of three is best, if possible. “This is because kids under three do not usually understand the need to stay in their bed once the bedtime routine is over,” says Lynelle Schneeberg, Psy.D., a pediatric sleep psychologist and author of “Become Your Child's Sleep Coach.”
A widely cited 2018 study recommends waiting until age three, citing benefits of sleeping in a crib, such as consolidated sleep, fewer night wakings, less resistance at bedtime, earlier bedtimes, and a more rapid transition into sleep.
Do they try to climb out of the crib?
Adventurous and brave kids may try climbing out of their crib, even before they are ready for a big kid bed. If you want to keep your child in their crib longer, you can use this time to slowly acclimate them to the feel of a big kid bed.
Schneeberg suggests lowering the crib mattress to its lowest setting or even to the floor to avoid injuries. You can also put them in a sleep sack. If your child is able to unzip the sack, reverse it so that it’s zipped up the back. For older kids, there are special pajamas with “webbing” between the ankles so they can’t separate their legs enough to get one leg over the crib rail.
Can they be trusted on their own?
Many times, age is just a guideline, not a rule. While Winter agrees the age of three is ideal, he adds that kids who show when they are ready can fall into a two-year age range. “The range is probably 1.5- to 3.5-years-old,” he says.
Signs your child is ready for a big kid bed may be straightforward, like resisting the crib or even asking for a bed.
“It's basically when your child is able to be trusted on [their] own for a period of time,” Winter says. “Sometimes, kids who need supervision learn how to climb out of their cribs before they reach that milestone, but that is less common.”
Keep the crib on hand, though, just in case they change their mind or if they have difficulty adjusting.
Can they fall asleep without your help?
One common mistake is starting the crib-to-bed transition before the child knows how to fall asleep independently. So, if your child still needs to be rocked, held, or fed to fall asleep, it’s likely that they’ll need even more help falling asleep in a bed — especially since they can leave their bed to find you again.
To facilitate independent sleep, Schneeberg advises using a consistent bedtime routine.
“[The routine] ends with your child settling themself to sleep in the crib with the help of a security object or small, safe toy,” she says. “Turn on a night light and remind your child that they can play quietly in the crib until drowsy. You may need to sit in a chair nearby while your child is learning this skill and then work your way out gradually.”
Are they learning or going through other home changes?
One transition at a time is a good rule of thumb for working through changes with children. “Avoid making this transition during another time of big change such as potty training, the start of the school year, the arrival of a new baby, or a household move,” Schneeberg says.
Multi-tasking isn’t a skill toddlers have, which can make mastering multiple transitions overwhelming. Changes in routine may also contribute to feelings of displacement or disorientation, which throws off schedules. Waiting for less chaos and keeping one routine the same, like the bedtime routine, can be beneficial.
Making the crib-to-bed transition
Opt for a full-size mattress
If you’re planning ahead (Go you!), consider a crib that converts to a toddler bed. This is an economical and practical option.
“The crib mattress is often still a perfectly appropriate size since children usually like to sleep in a small, cozy space,” Schneeberg says. “The child can be transitioned to a twin bed later once they’re older and bigger.”
If you’re in the market for a new bed, it can be tempting to purchase a toddler bed, especially with fun-shaped beds on the market, but many children quickly outgrow these. Consider buying a mattress that will fit your kid as they roll around. If you plan to stay in your home longterm, a benefit is not needing to reorient the room once your child grows into a teen and wants a larger bed. Set it up on a low platform that can be adjusted as the child grows. If you’re worried about your child rolling out of bed, use a detachable guard rail to prevent from falling out.
Keep the bed in the same place
In addition to budget, families should consider the size of the room where the child will be sleeping in as well. If you haven’t set up the crib yet, consider placing the crib where the bed will go eventually.
Ideally, the location of the new bed should be where the crib was set up. Schneeberg explains that your child adjusts more quickly when they have the same view as from their crib.
Let your child be part of the process
Once parents have picked a bed, they can make kids part of the transition by letting them pick out kid-friendly bedding or a special stuffed animal or toy. Not only does this make the big kid bed seem more appealing, but it also gives your child some decision-making power and may get them excited about sleep.
Double check the childproofing in their bedroom
When they were safe in the crib, loose cords and detached furniture were less of a problem. Now without the confined crib setting, Schneeberg advises checking for tripping hazards, furniture that can be climbed on or tipped over, any unsecured windows, and hot surfaces such as radiators or heaters. Ensure that carbon dioxide and smoke detectors are correctly installed and in good working order, too. If closet doors open, install buffers so that little fingers aren’t pinched if your toddler explores during the night, or install knob covers so that doors can’t be opened.
What to do after the bed is installed
Set limits around their bedtime routine
During the transition, toddlers often stall more at bedtime. Keep the bedtime routine consistent — don’t add more steps.
To limit stall tactics, Schneeberg recommends the “bedtime tickets” system, which are small cards that can be traded for “one more thing” — such as another hug or a drink of water — after lights out. “Once the two tickets are gone, parents can remind their children to play quietly in bed until they are drowsy enough to fall asleep,” she says.
Be a little boring after bedtime
Kids might also leave their beds to find a parent and see what they’re doing. For the sake of curious kiddos, you may want to keep your own late-night activities quiet and boring. “A child finding two parents reading in a quiet living room is much less a cause for curiosity than parents watching a movie,” Winter says.
React calmly and gently when they come out of their room. “The key is to not exhibit stress or irritability,” Winter says. Creating stress, anxiety, or fear before bed may create performance anxiety and create a negative sleep identity in kids, which may develop into sleep issues later in life.
“Parents can just walk them calmly and quietly back to bed each time,” Schneeberg says.
If the child successfully stays in bed, Winter encourages positive reinforcement such as verbal encouragement or a rewards chart.
If they stall and fall asleep later, don’t shift their wake-time
In order to help kids sleep better on-time, keep to their fixed wake-up time. "Control the wake time and the bedtime will follow," Winter says. He also stresses how vital it is for parents not to fall for stalling tactics.
It's okay for there to be natural consequences for stalling, Winter says. “[It’s] just a friendly reminder to the child's brain that there will not be allowances made for wasted sleep time,” he says. “This creates a situation where the brain figures out very quickly that it has a very concrete period of time to get the sleep it needs, and if it doesn't, there is no other opportunity to make up the debt.”
Be patient with yourselves throughout the transition
As with any big transition, it's key that parents remain patient and manage expectations. If the transition is taking longer than a few weeks, it could be a sign that your child isn't ready yet. Parents can have their child return to sleeping in their crib, as long as it's not coming off as punishment, Winter says.
Or try a more moderate transition by moving your child from their crib to a crib mattress on the floor, then to a bed mattress on the floor, and finally to the bed.