By: Hannah Levine, Amy Nasamran, M.A., & Suzi Naguib, Psy.D.

Getting into bed at night can often be something we adults look forward to at the end of a long, productive day. The same may not always be true for our lovable toddlers, however, especially for those who are not yet used to sleeping in a bed. Parents may find their toddlers getting out of bed, hiding and peeking behind the door, or suddenly appearing in another room. Helping toddlers get to bed quickly can then become a tricky task for parents who are eager to get some rest themselves.

Bedtime can be especially tough for toddlers who are beginning to transition from sleeping in a crib to sleeping in a big girl or big boy bed. For parents, figuring out when and how to make the transition to a big kid bed can be daunting. Below are some strategies for assessing when your toddler may be ready for the transition, as well as how to make the transition smoother for children and parents alike.

Unfortunately there is no easy answer or magic age when children become ready to sleep in a bed. It is important to note that children develop at different paces, and assessing your child’s developmental readiness can help you determine whether he/she may be ready to transition to a big kid bed. There are several developmental signs parents can look for to help them decide when a toddler may be ready to make the transition from a crib to a bed:

Your toddler can climb out of the crib. Many parents find that, as children grow and reach motor milestones like crawling and walking, they also start to become really good at climbing. Parents may find their toddlers trying to or successfully climbing out of the crib. Once this happens, it is important to start considering your child’s safety, as well as his/her readiness to transition to sleeping in a bed instead of a crib. 

Your child is beginning to understand spatial boundaries. Understanding spatial boundaries is one skill that children learn as they develop. Research suggests that children begin to develop awareness of spatial boundaries around the time they are 3- to 4-years-old (Bullens, Nardin, Doeller, Braddick, Postma, & Burgess, 2009; Huttenlocher, Newcombe, & Vasilyeva, 1999). Thus, on average, most children transition from a crib around this time, although the transition can happen earlier or later for some children. Unlike cribs, which have rails, beds do not have concrete boundaries, and so your toddler will have to be able to imagine the pretend boundaries of a bed. Children who have not yet developed this understanding may have trouble staying within the limits of their big kid bed and may be frequently getting out of bed at night, interrupting both their own sleep as well as their parents’!

Your child can play independently without supervision around the house. With the newfound freedom of a bed without rails, it is normal for children to occasionally test the limits of their bed for a short while. This means that during the initial transition from a crib to a bed, there will be some nights that children get out of bed, and parents will find their toddler playing unsupervised in the bedroom or another room in the house instead of sleeping in bed as expected. If your toddler is able to play safely without your supervision for a short time, he may be ready to begin the transition process.

Your child asks for her own bed. Your toddler may directly tell you that she is ready for a big kid bed. If your toddler is able to expressively communicate her interest in sleeping in her own bed, that may be a sign that she is developmentally ready to transition from a crib to a bed. 

Once you’ve assessed your toddler’s readiness for the transition from a crib to a bed, there are several strategies you can use to help make the transition easier for you and your child:

Double-check the safety of the room. It’s likely that your toddler’s room has been safety-proofed at some point. It is important to go through and double-check for additional safety issues that may present themselves to toddlers who will now have access to their entire room. Once your toddler transitions to a bed, he will be able to get to things he could not have before within the limits of a crib. Going through to double-check for complete safety is an important first step before transitioning your toddler to a bed.

Share the news with your child. Talking to your toddler and informing her of the switch is essential. Children who come home to an unfamiliar new bed may become less excited about or less willing to make the transition. Toddlers do better with routine and predictability, so they need to know what to expect. Informing your child of the change is an important way to include her and provide her with a sense of ownership in the process. Also, consider letting your child help with picking the new bed or new sheets for the bed to make it her own.

Make the new bed exciting and welcoming. When you first get the new bed, help make it exciting for your toddler. Demonstrating and modeling how excited you are about the new bed may help your child pick up on the excitement as well. Place a pile of your child’s favorite toys, stuffed animals, and blankets on the bed to help make the new bed more familiar, welcoming, and comforting.

Try small steps at a time if necessary. Some children may benefit from transitioning from a crib to a bed in smaller steps. For example, parents can invest in a simple rail to set on the side of a bed to keep kids from rolling off the bed. This can help protect the child’s safety as they begin to learn the boundaries of their new bed. 

Be patient and consistent. It is important to note that the transition from a crib to a bed may not be a quick or easy transition. Falling asleep in a bed is something that is natural for adults who have had decades of practice, so we might take for granted that this is something children actually need to learn how to do. Experts suggest that it usually takes a few weeks for a toddler to fully transition from a crib to a bed. There may be a few rough nights throughout the process, but try to stick with it. When your child gets out of bed, be prepared to calmly and matter-of-factly put him right back in it (showing too much positive or negative emotion is likely to perpetuate the getting out of bed behavior). Consistency and practice will help your child become more used to his new bed.

Resources & Reference
Bullens, J., Nardin, M., Doeller, C.F., Braddick, O., Postma, A., & Burgess, N. (2009). The role of landmarks and boundaries in the development of spatial memory. Developmental Science, 13(1), 170-180. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00870.x.
Huttenlocher, J., Newcombe, N., & Vasilyeva, M. (1999). Spatial scaling in young children. Psychological Science, 10(5), 393-398. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00175.