One of the most common sleep questions parents ask me is, “How and when do we transition our baby to a big kid bed?” It always makes me laugh when the mother of a very young infant asks about it! I know what she’s thinking...now that he’s predictably sleeping well, the thought of fixing something that isn’t broken sounds like a very bad idea. To many of us, making a change this monumental feels disruptive to the sleep patterns we’ve worked so hard to instill in our child. As a mom, I can relate, and as a sleep expert, I’m here to help!
1.) The “when” part of this question is misleading. If you want to know the perfect age for moving your child from his crib to a bed, there isn’t one. The right timing is more about his developmental stage - specifically where he is in regards to his intellect, his social awareness, and his verbal skills. If he can easily follow two-step directions, ex. “James, please get your shoes and bring them to Mommy,” knows the difference between off and on, understands the “if/then” concept (i.e. think positive reinforcement/punishment), I’d say he’s well on his way to being ready.
2.) Who’s the boss at bedtime? If you immediately say to yourself, “Oh, my child knows he’s running the show!” then now is NOT the time to make this transition. Before he’s out of the crib, it needs to be very clear that the parent is the one who determines what happens at bedtime and through the night. If you go into it with a child who is in charge, he will not be successful. You’ll be inviting an intense bedtime battle that will leave you feeling resentful, defeated and oh so tired.
3.) Take your time to get some important routines in place two months before the transition. This goes along with #2. We want our children to be lead by us, but ultimately we want them to be individuals who can make decisions that are best for their long-term health and wellbeing. To help them along, we have to set them up for success by putting predictable, consistent, and easy-to-understand boundaries in place as soon as possible. Simple rules, clear expectations and follow-through are your best friends! Practically speaking, be sure the bedtime routine is solid – from start to finish it should be linear and without distraction or delay. Bath, brush teeth, pj’s, book, song, lights out, into the crib, prayers, leave the room/sit with him as he falls asleep. Playtime and every other little thing that comes to his mind at bedtime will have to wait until the next day! If he knows there’s no room for stall tactics, the transition will go much more smoothly overall.
4.) Get him in the “sleep rules” mindset around his 2nd birthday. By planning ahead, you can make the crib to bed transition easier (and more fun) for both of you! Do some research and purchase a sleep cue clock. Teach him what it means and start using it while he’s still in the crib. There are a bunch of different sleep cue clocks out there, so look for one that you feel your child will understand immediately and make sure it won’t be distracting. The one I use, created, and love is called the SleepBuddy Complete Sleep System. SleepBuddy is designed so that even very young children can quickly grasp the sleep rule: “When your SleepBuddy is on, stay quietly in bed. When it turns off, you may get up!” The on/off concept is direct and super easy to teach. It comes with a children’s book and a sticker chart to encourage him to comply. While in the crib, begin to turn the focus to the sleep light. It becomes the boss so that you don’t have to be the bad guy. When it’s on, Mommy leaves and the child is quietly in the crib. When it turns off, Mommy comes in and gets him out of the crib. When he grasps this and sees the consistent on/off cue becoming part of the everyday routine, he’s ready to move to a bed.
5.) Talk it up. 2-4 weeks before you plan to move him into a bed, set up a twin bed with rails in his room while he’s still sleeping in the crib. (If you’re going to convert his crib gradually by taking one of the sides down, skip the bed part.) Every once in awhile, as you’re playing/getting him ready for bed/putting his clean clothes away, etc. casually mention that when he’s a big boy he’ll be able to sleep in the bed instead of his crib. Talk it up as if it was a privilege, and one day soon he’ll be able to try it out.
6.) Be calm as a cucumber and don’t make it about you. Our kids are constantly trying to figure out what’s important to us so that they can push our buttons (did I really just type that??). It’s true. As soon as he hears you telling your playgroup that the bed is set up and you can’t wait to ditch the crib, he will begin fighting the bed program AT THAT VERY MOMENT. If you want this to work, don’t let on that you care one way or the other where he sleeps.
7.) If he asks to sleep in the bed, this is my practical advice: You’re getting him ready for nap/bed and suddenly he says he wants to sleep in the bed (because you’ve been so diligent about CASUALLY talking it up). This is fantastic because he thinks it’s his idea. You should respond by saying, “Ok buddy, we’ll try it this time. But if you choose to get out of bed when SleepBuddy is on, you will show me you’re not big enough yet. If you get out of bed when SleepBuddy is on I will put you back into the crib.” Then FOLLOW THROUGH. Follow his naptime/bedtime routine just like always, but put him in the bed instead of his crib. Don’t make a big deal about it. Act normal. Then if he decides to get out of bed, walk him to his crib calmly and put him in it. Then remind him of the SleepBuddy rule, say goodnight, and leave the room/sit beside him if that’s what you usually do. If he knows how to climb out of the crib, put a sleep sack on him backward and/or inside out so that he can’t lift his leg up over the rail.
8.) Use incentives to sweeten the deal. You may call this bribery, but after using incentives with all seven of my children I respectfully disagree. Even as adults we are encouraged to make healthy choices by external motivators. Look at it as using things they want to help them create healthy habits. When the habit is formed, they will no longer require the enticement of the reward. Trust me! All of my kids started out getting some type of positive reinforcement when they moved into a bed, and all but the youngest (she just recently made this transition) naturally phased out of needing the reward. They just stopped asking for it, and staying in bed became a natural part of their life. One way I use incentives is to put 2-3 small treats in a jar/container with a tight-fitting lid (I use a tiny mason jar with a plastic screw top). I place the jar right next to SleepBuddy and tell them to bring it to me when their SleepBuddy turns off so they can have what’s inside. If they get out of bed or are making loud noises, I walk in calmly and take a treat out while reminding them SleepBuddy is on. They cry and cry, but stay in bed. They get whatever is left when SleepBuddy turns off. Works like a charm! The key is that whatever is in that jar has to truly motivate them. I change it up every week or so to keep it exciting!
I hope this is helpful! Even if your child isn’t currently at this stage, keep these hints in your back pocket to encourage you or a loved one down the road. Parenthood is hard!!! We can all benefit from learning from each other. Visit me at Healthy Happy Sleep’s Facebook page or reach out through my website www.healthyhappysleep.com.
As a Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant, Laura Swartz at http://www.HealthyHappySleep.com is qualified to work with children from newborns through age 5, as well as multiples and children with special needs. She graduated from the Family Sleep Institute and lives in Atlanta, GA where she homeschools her seven children ages 15, 14, 12, 9, 7, 4 and 3. She is also the creator of the SleepBuddy Complete Sleep System. Laura's expertise and creative, customized approaches will help your little one learn to be a healthy, happy sleeper!