How to Transition Your Toddler Into a Bed

Introducing change into a toddler’s life can be an interesting experiment, to say the least.  I may not be an expert on toddler behavior, but I do have some experience with “change management” among toddlers, and have learned that they are full of surprises. I expected to battle the ‘no pacifier rule’ with my son for at least a week … but all it took is one night. Surprisingly, my daughter took to potty training without much convincing.

But, the transition to a big-boy bed did not go as smoothly.  In our situation, this transition was mandatory, as he learned to leap over the crib rail onto the floor like a mini Bart Conner of gymnastics fame.  Other than safety reasons, there’s no set time when you have to replace your child’s crib with a regular or toddler bed, although most children make the switch sometime between ages 1 1/2 and 3 1/2.  Here are a few tips I discovered help when making the transition:

  • Expect the unexpected. Every child is different; so don’t be surprised if your second child reacts differently to a change than your first did. The good news is, usually the firstborn has the hardest time with the transition, as subsequent children may want to be just like their older brother or sister.  Regardless, attachments to the crib can be strong, and the move to sleeping in a bed is just one of many changes in this phase of your toddler’s life, such as preschool and potty training. If you’re lucky, they will be eager to move from the crib, which is “for babies,” into a “big-kid bed.”
  • Baby steps. Try not to introduce too many big changes at once, like bringing home a newborn and moving your toddler into a big-kid bed in the same week.  If you are making the switch because of the impending arrival of another baby, try to do so six to eight weeks before you are due. You want your toddler to be settled in his new bed before he sees the baby taking over “his” crib.
  • Different, but similar.  If possible, to ease the transition, put your toddler’s new bed in the same place his crib used to be. If you’re using a twin bed, you may not want to make a switch to grown-up sheets and blankets that are tucked in right away.  Give your child his old blanket, even if it’s too small.  When he falls asleep, you can cover him with a larger blanket.
  • Toddler bed.  On that note, another strategy is the use of specific “toddler beds.”  These ease the transition since toddler bedding will use the same mattress and sheets that your toddler is used to, and they will be less likely to notice a change. Many come with built-in guardrails, and some are made in very appealing themes, such as Disney characters, and shapes, such as cars.
  • Let’s get excited! Get your toddler excited about having a “big-kid bed” by taking him with you to pick it out, or if receiving it as a hand-me down, emphasizing its previous owner if that person is someone your child knows (such as a favorite older cousin). Let your toddler shop with you for new sheets featuring his favorite characters, and encourage him to show his “big-kid bed” to visiting friends and family. 

Another approach, although a little more work, is to throw a “big-kid bed” party … invite friends and family over to unveil the new bed.
  • But not too excited. If your child has trouble adjusting to the newfound freedom and is frequently getting out of bed, try not making a big deal of it (this tends to make it interesting for the child).  Instead, make it boring by calmly taking him back to bed, repeating in a monotone voice,”You must stay in your bed.”  It may take 3 or 4 nights of this, but with less drama, more than likely he will not be tempted to get out of bed for the reaction.
  • Don’t give up (right away, that is). If your toddler is upset about the switch, don’t give up right away.  Encouragement can go a long way when introducing change.  After a few days, if he is still distraught, consider bringing it back for a while.  I’ve heard a few friends say they’ve tried “transitioning” away from the pacifier or crib, only to bring them back. Once back, however, within a week, the toddler was willing (and ready!) to try again.  Sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and bringing back the pacifier — or the crib — and trying again later.

Again, no two children will react the exact same, so we’d love to hear how you managed the transition, and any words of wisdom you can share.