Transitioning from a Crib to a Big Kid Bed

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent talk about transitioning their toddler to a big-kid bed unsuccessfully (ending up in mom’s bed), I would be rich.  Is it possible to do so smoothly?  Absolutely.  What you should really know is that when it comes to making the transition from a crib to a big-kid bed, there are two questions that need to be answered.

  • When is a good time to transition from a crib to a big-kid bed?
  • How do I make that transition smoothly?

Now, if you’re reading this on my website, chances are that you came here looking for some advice about teaching your little one the skills they need to sleep through the night, rather than how to actually transition a child who sleeps well through the night. And if that’s the case, then the answer to the question of “When” is, quite simply, “Not now.”

There are two reasons why I say this. The first reason I say this is because there is absolutely no rush to get your toddler out of their crib and into a bed. I know that there are so many aesthetically pleasing big-kid beds out there- from a race car to a princess carriage.  But the truth is that I have seen plenty of 3-year olds sleeping happily in a crib and none of the clients I’ve worked with ever told me, “I wish we’d transitioned him to a big kid bed earlier.” You may have heard that the longer you wait to transition your child into the crib, the more attached he/she will be and the tougher it will be to make that transition- but that is false.  More than anything, the parents that reach out to me to transition their child into a big kid bed reach out because their child is not sleeping well at night and the belief is that putting them in a big kid bed will make them sleep better since they sleep well when bed-sharing with mom and/or dad.

The second reason is that if you’re about to start sleep training, there’s going to be a period of adjustment as your toddler learns to fall asleep independently, and that’s going to take a little getting used to. During this adventure, it’s comforting for your little one to have a familiar place to sleep. Her bedroom, her sheets, her lovie, her crib, everything that can stay the same should stay the same until she’s mastered the skills to fall asleep on her own.

I should add here, just in case you’re considering sleep training, that switching to a big kid bed is going to be a whole lot easier if your little one is already sleeping through the night. A toddler who is well rested and able to fall asleep independently is far less likely to leave their room at night, which is the single biggest issue that parents run into when they move their little ones out of the crib. With that being said, if you are considering the transition to the big kid bed for other reasons- such as you are expecting another child and don’t want to buy another crib AND your child is over the age of 2.5 years old, we can talk about the transition.

Alright, so let’s assume that either your little one is already falling asleep on their own and sleeping through the night, or that, for whatever reason, you’re in a hurry to get your toddler out of the crib and into a bed. This is the time to talk about how to make the transition smoothly.

Step number one is preparation. You’re going to want to fill your little one in on what’s happening. Explain to them that they’re going to be making the move into the new bed, set a date, and let them know when the switch is going to happen. When you explain what’s happening to your toddler, make sure you do it with a positive spin.

So there’s a bit of tight-wire act to be performed here. On the one hand, you want to prepare your toddler for the switch, but at the same time, you don’t want to make a huge production out of it. Turning the whole thing into a monumental occasion puts a lot of pressure on your child and is likely to stress them out a bit.

Now that it’s time to actually make the trip to Ikea and pick out the hardware, be sure to bring your toddler along. (Prepare yourself for the onslaught of requests for items that have nothing to do with your intended purchase, possibly from your child, but more likely from your own brain. “Oh hey! What a neat colander! Only six bucks? How can I NOT get it?”) But really, steer clear of requests in the bedroom that have nothing to do with sleep or that will likely be overstimulating for your child when you are trying to get them to settle down instead.

Giving your child some input into which bed she wants, what sheets she likes, what pillows feel the most comfortable, will obviously ensure that she gets something she likes, but will also help her feel a sense of ownership over her new bed, which can work wonders in easing the transition. If you’re really adventurous, you can even let your little one help you put the new bed together, although speaking from personal experience, I suggest that you do, you know, literally anything else. The mere thought of a toddler and an disassembled piece of Ikea furniture in the same room gives me the shivers.

So now that it’s put together and the sheets are on, you’ll want to keep the bed in the same place the crib used to be. In fact, you’ll want to keep just about everything exactly as it was in your toddler’s room except for the new bed. This is a big change, so try not to make any unnecessary additional changes- where what I said earlier about not buying unnecessary items comes in.

This goes double for the schedule on the night of the big event. When you’re getting your toddler ready for bed on that first night, don’t alter the routine, don’t switch up bedtime, don’t try to give her a new food at dinner. Keep everything as predictable and mundane as possible.

Again, you don’t need to make a production out of it. Tell her you’re proud of her, but try to avoid statements like, “What a big girl you are now!” Toddlers are typically in a perpetual state of uncertainty about whether or not they want to do this whole “growing up” thing, and we want to keep things as low-key as we can.

So now that your toddler’s been put to bed and the light’s been turned out, there are a few different scenarios that can play out.

Scenario 1

They adapt immediately to their new bed and they don’t test the rules whatsoever. In this case, celebrate heartily. You are among the very lucky minority. In the morning give them a reward- such as pancakes for breakfast if that’s what your kid wants.

Scenario 2

Your little one seems to adapt immediately but, after a week or two, starts leaving their room, playing with their toys, or calling for mom to come back in several times a night.

Scenario 3

Your toddler starts doing all of those things the very first night.
The solution to the latter two of these situations is the same. Offer a warning when your toddler demonstrates the unwanted behavior, tell them what the consequence is going to be if they do it again, and then follow up on that consequence if and when they repeat it.

Chances are that you’ve already discovered a consequence that works on your toddler, and I strongly suggest you keep that it place. Again, we don’t want anything to change except for the bed, so keep doing whatever you’ve been doing up until now in regards to managing behavior.

In case you haven’t discovered an effective consequence yet, I find that taking the lovie away for a short period of time and closing the door all the way are both pretty functional without putting your toddler into hysterics. For each repeat offense, increase the length of time that the door stays closed or the lovie stays out of the bed. That pretty much sums it up folks. Explain what’s happening, keep things light, set the expectations and enforce the rules. It’s not always going to be easy, but it is pretty straightforward.

One final thought to keep in mind… As much as we’re trying to keep this transition as stress-free and smooth as we can, remember this: You are the boss. It’s almost a mathematical certainty that your little one is going to buck a bit about this change. She’ll probably leave her room a lot, she’ll call for you to come in, ask for a glass of water, and more than anything, say that she wants to go back to sleeping in her crib.

Knowing that toddlers like to push boundaries and test limits, the most important thing while making the transition is to hold your ground every step of the way here, especially during the first few weeks. If you start bending the rules and allowing her to climb into bed with you, or letting her get back into the crib, this process is going to go on for months. So harden your will, maintain an air of calm authority, and enforce the rules firmly and consistently. It may make you feel like a bit of a dictator at times, but it will get your little one sleeping peacefully in her new bed a whole lot sooner.