How to Transition a Toddler to a ‘Big Kid Bed’

How to Transition a Toddler to a ‘Big Kid Bed’
Photo: Slava Dumchev, Shutterstock

So, your toddler is embarking on the journey from a crib to a bed. It’s both an inevitable transition and one of the most blatant signs your baby isn’t your baby anymore; they are becoming your big kid (and how dare they!). Knowing when — and how — to make the transition can be tricky, though, so let’s talk it through.

How to know when it’s time

Although every kid gets to this point eventually, deciding when to pull the plug on the crib can depend on a lot of factors, including their age (most kids transition sometime between 18 months and three years of age), their size, and their propensity for climbing out of the crib. Ideally, you’d make the transition before they start climbing out, but some kids break out sooner than others. Once they start escaping — or attempting to escape — it’s time make the switch.

You may also be planning for the transition because of the impending arrival of a baby sibling who will need to use that crib. If you’re moving a toddler out of their crib to free it up for the baby, make the transition for your big kid with enough lead time that they don’t feel they’re being displaced by the baby, Dr. Mark Widome, a professor of pediatrics at Penn State Children’s Hospital, tells Parents.com:

Begin the transition one to two months before the new baby is due to arrive, assuming that your toddler is at least 18 months old, says Dr. Widome. By getting your older child comfortably situated in his new bed, he’ll think of the crib as neutral territory — and not his sleeping spot — when the baby arrives. If possible, dismantle the crib or store it in a room where it’s out of sight, suggests Dr. Widome. Or aim to make the crib “unsleepable” by filling it with stuffed animals, toys, and blankets.

And finally, try to avoid moving them from their crib if they’re already going through another big life transition, such as starting daycare for the first time, or beginning potty training. Whenever possible, seeing them through one big life change at a time is enough.

Let them help pick something out

Just like letting little kids pick out Toy Story underpants when it’s time to start potty training can help get them excited for the challenge, giving them a say in some aspect of the set-up of their new big-kid bed is a good idea. If their crib doesn’t convert into a toddler bed or you want to go straight to a bed they’ll use for the longer term (and you don’t mind if they choose, say, a race car bed), let them help pick out the actual bed.

If you’ve already got the bed on hand (or you prefer to make the selection), let them decide what kind of bedding they’ll use, or let them pick out a new stuffed animal buddy to snuggle with at night.

Have them “practice” at nap time

Going from sleeping in a small, semi-enclose contraption to a wide-open surface during the longest, darkest hours of the day could be daunting for them, for obvious reasons. If you think they’re ready to transition but doing so at night is too scary for them at the beginning, let them “practice” at nap time.

This will only work if the crib and bed are separate pieces of furniture (obviously you will not want to convert a crib to a toddler bed and back multiple times a day) and if they both fit in the room. But if you can swing it for a few days, it can help a bed-wary toddler ease into their new sleeping arrangement.

Keep the same bedtime routine

If ever there was a time to be a stickler for bedtime routine consistency, now is it. If you were a bath-PJs-books-songs-lights-out parent when they slept in a crib, keep the same routine when they transition to a bed. Maybe now you’ll want to snuggle in the bed together for books and songs, rather than in the rocking chair, but keep the order of things as close to their usual routine as possible.

Also, if possible, put the bed in the same spot the crib was in so they don’t feel disoriented by a change in location, and keep using whatever night lights or noise machines were helping to soothe them during their crib-sleeping days.

Getting them to stay in bed

If you’ve waited as long as possible before making the transition, it’s probably because you have been enjoying the main perk a crib provides over a bed: It keeps them contained. Nobody relishes the idea of a toddler having access not only their whole room, but possibly the entire home into the wee hours of the morning.

Here’s what Dr. Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block and

The Happiest Toddler on the Block, says about that:

You need to (1) childproof the room really well (including electric outlets, curtain cords and sharp corners), and (2) keep her from roaming outside the room at night.

Use a gate to keep her in her room. If she climbs over it, you may need to spend a little time training her to stay in the room or even close the door. Say something like, “Honey, this is Mr. Gate! Mr. Gate will help you stay in the room…so at bedtime, after we sing and read and say night-night…then we’ll close Mr. Gate…and he will help you stay safe and happy in your room all night.”

If your little gymnast climbs over the gate, you may need to close the door and put a doorknob cover on the inside of the door to her room.

What to Expect writer Amy O’Connor also suggests trying a sticker chart to offer positive reinforcement each night they stay in bed. Offer them a special treat, such as an extra bedtime story or family outing, at the end of the week as a reward for staying put.

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