Thump! (Long, scary pause.) "WAAANNNHH!!" One of my 26-month-old twin sons, Theo, had just learned to climb out of his crib but had not yet mastered the climbing-down-to-the-floor part. It's always frightening when your kid first learns this monkey maneuver because it's the signal, according to most experts, that it's time to move him to a big bed. (And, oh yeah, he could seriously hurt himself.)
Theo was fine, but I was panicked. Within an hour, I was back from the store with two crib tents. As I zipped up the tents that afternoon, my boys cozily confined inside for their naps, I sighed in relief: My life does not have to be upended. At least not right now.
Because, frankly, I was tired of life-upending transitions. Just a month before, we'd gone through the excruciating process of taking away the boys' nighttime ba-ba of milk. (Yep, call the Parenting Police, I let them use bottles past age 2.) And a few months before that, the boys had given up their morning nap--and I'd had to say goodbye to my shower-coffee-e-mail break.
The point is: Toddlers, from 18 months through about age 4, go through some pretty huge transitions. And therefore, so do their parents. "Development is so rapid during these years, which is why so many important steps toward independence happen," says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, in New York City. And what's particularly tricky about toddler transitions is that they come just when you had gotten into a good rhythm and thought your life was back to normal.
Here's a freakout-free guide to how and when things get shaken up, and how to get your family's life back on track sooner rather than later.
Giving Up the Bottle or Pacifier
Approximate age: between 1 and 3 years
Why it sucks: Who wants to surrender their favorite crutch? You'll both have to learn new methods of soothing.
How to get through it: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends giving up the pacifier at 6 months and ditching the bottle at 1 year. But if you, like me, waited longer, there are ways to make this transition less stressful. First, give your child advance warning--"Next week, we're going to say bye-bye to your bottle!"--and then give him daily reminders. But try not to give too much advance notice; if you start preparing kids a month ahead of time, you risk the chance of dread setting in, says Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Institute at New York University's Child Study Center.
When it's time to do the deed, create a ritual. Some parents invent a "Binky fairy" that swaps pacis for presents. Some families tie the pacifiers to helium-filled balloons and set them free in the sky. I took my boys to the toy store where we "exchanged" their bottles for new playthings (the shop owner was in on it). Whatever you do, make it final. That means no caving at 1 a.m.
The silver lining: If you're ditching bottles, you've just slashed your dishwashing time in half and lightened your traveling load. More important, if you gave your child a bedtime bottle, you don't have to worry about baby-bottle mouth. And if you said goodbye to pacifiers, the annoying drop-rinse-drop-rinse routine is gone for good.
Going From Two Naps to One
Approximate age: commonly between 1 and 2 years
Why it sucks: You won't have that glorious hour and a half to yourself every morning. In addition, your child won't drop the nap all at once. Some days he'll need it, some days he won't. Attempt putting him down when he's not tired and you'll have a battle of wills. Try keeping him up and you could end up with an overtired freakazoid.
How to get through it: Roll with the punches. If your child resists the morning nap for several days in a row, she's probably ready to give it up. Try keeping her up later and later each morning and move her afternoon nap earlier and earlier until you achieve a 12:30 p.m. (or thereabouts) nap, says Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician in Austin, TX, and coauthor of Toddler 411. You can also plan outings for the day so you'll be in the car during the time your toddler would normally take her morning nap. If she naps, great. If she doesn't, that's okay, too.
The silver lining: You can plan better morning activities (the zoo! the playground and grocery shopping!) now that you have a solid chunk of time. And the afternoon nap will become longer (between two and three hours). One last bonus: Your nap-weaning experience will come in handy again when your kid gives up napping altogether, a day that will come between 3 and 4 years.
Approximate age: 2 to 3 1/2 years
Why it sucks: Pee and poop all over your house and wardrobe; bathroom pit-stops every five minutes.
How to get through it: Start when your child shows signs of readiness, like asking to be changed after a pee or a poop; "dry" periods of a few hours; and pride in accomplishments and praise. Here's Dr. Brown's no-nonsense plan: Put your child in underwear for a weekend. If he has a couple of accidents but feels bad about them, great! He'll probably get the hang of using the potty in a couple of days. But if he has ten accidents and couldn't care less, go back to diapers on Monday and try again later.
The silver lining: Getting rid of diapers is a beautiful thing, and your wallet will feel the difference. Plus, pooping on the potty is a much tidier affair than pooping in a diaper.
Moving From Crib to Bed
Approximate age: 2 to 4 years
Why it sucks: If your child doesn't want to sleep, all he has to do is swing his legs over the side of the bed and he's out. Expect him to take advantage of this new freedom for days or weeks.
How to get through it: Pick the right time. Unless you'll need the crib soon for a new sibling, or your child can climb out and hurt himself, Dr. Brown suggests waiting until he doesn't fit inside comfortably anymore.
About a week before the transfer, let your child help pick out his new bedding and get used to the idea. Say "It might take you a while to get used to your new bed, and that's okay. Mommy and Daddy will be here."
On the big day, spell out the ground rules: At bedtime, your child has to stay in bed. When he gets out (and he will), gently lead him back to his room by the hand, saying "It's time for bed." After the third time (if there is one), lead him back to bed without saying anything or engaging with him at all.
The silver lining: You won't break your back changing crib sheets. And you can cuddle in bed with your little guy without breaking the whole thing!
Approximate age: Between 3 and 5 (sometimes earlier if you're sending your child to a "2's" program)
Why it sucks: Your kiddo is headed off to a new environment without you, the babysitter, or her favorite daycare provider there to hold her hand.
How to get through it: Talk it up. Read books on how fun school is, tell her about the exciting things she will do (yoga!), and take her to the school before she starts to show her around. Let her pick out a backpack and arrange playdates with her new classmates. Talk to the teachers about how they handle drop-offs. Many allow you to stay for up to an hour in the beginning. But if goodbyes are getting harder rather than easier, a quick drop-off may be best for everyone.
The silver lining: Every day, your child will come home with new stories about everything she did. You'll marvel at the person she's becoming. But you'll wish she could stay a toddler forever.