If you're like most parents, sometime around your child's second birthday you'll start wondering when it will be time to start transitioning your toddler from that beautiful crib you picked out months (or even years!) ago to a "big boy" or "big girl" bed. This time around, picking a new bed will be the easy part—the actual transition to the new sleeping environment may be a little trickier.
Before you announce that it's time to switch, look for clues that your child is ready to leave the crib. If he or she is already jumping (or falling or hanging) out of the crib, then it's time. This usually occurs when a child is 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 years old, but there's no specific age or height requirement. If your baby is content to sit or stand in the crib with the mattress at the lowest setting without trying to get out, you may have more time. Once your child is able to hike his leg up to the edge of the top railing, which is usually around 35 inches, or if the child's mid-chest is even with the top railing while standing, it's time to move on from the crib. The decision to transition should be more about safety than the child's desire to move to a big kid bed.
Yep, they're ready
When it really is time, you have a number of options to make the move easier and safer. One very safe option is to simply put a toddler mattress on the floor. This eliminates the biggest risk during the transition: a fall resulting in a broken arm or other injury. After your child adjusts to sleeping on the mattress, you can add a bed frame. Many families choose to skip the toddler bed altogether (and another transition later) by going right to a twin bed. Either way, after you've raised the mattress onto a frame, find a nice step stool for your child to make it easier and safer to climb in and out of bed. My daughter has one with her name on it. You should also install a safety rail (found at many big box retailers and most baby specialty stores) on all sides of the bed and, if possible, position the bed with one side against a wall to lessen the risk of a tumble. A soft rug under the bed can further cushion a child in an accidental fall.
Get your toddler involved in the transition
Once you've addressed the safety concerns, be prepared to handle the emotional struggle. Many toddlers view their cribs as a safe haven. This new sleeping surface is foreign and may be scary. This is where parenting plays a key role. To help your child feel better about the bed, let him or her pick out the sheets and the comforter. Your toddler should feel like the bed really belongs to him or her. Read books with your child there and start by having your child take naps in the bed. Many parents continue the same bedtime routines, but will actually lie down with their child during story time to put them at ease. You can get up once the child falls asleep. For toddlers who have been used to co-sleeping with parents, it may be a real shock to suddenly be sleeping solo. In this instance, try putting a mattress at the foot of your bed and gradually transition the sleeping surface to the child's own room.
Freedom to roam
Once your child leaves the confines of the crib, don't be shocked if he or she becomes a nocturnal traveler. Leaving the crib brings new freedom. Many parents tell me their toddler will easily fall asleep in a toddler bed, only to magically appear in Mom and Dad's bed during the night. Gentle reassurance and returning the child back to his or her bed should help. Often, slowly fading away from the child's presence will work. Try rewarding your child with positive reinforcement for spending the entire night in his or her bed.
With your child's new liberty to roam, make sure that you have installed gates around stairs, childproof outlet covers and latches on the dresser drawers to prevent toddler mishaps during the night.
The most important thing to remember when transitioning your toddler to a big kid's bed is to make it safe and fun.
Justin Morgan, M.D., FAAP, is a board-certified pediatrician at Bundoo who practices in a hospital-based general pediatrics practice in Louisville, Ky. He cares for children of all ages at Kosair Children's Hospital Medical Associates.