Congratulations! You moved your child out of a crib and into a toddler bed. Well, to be fair, you probably didn’t have a choice in the matter: Perhaps your little one started climbing out of the crib independently (which, according to experts, is the biggest sign that he or she is ready to sleep in a bed). Or maybe you need to make room for a younger sibling. Whatever the reason, it’s time to celebrate this major milestone in your kid’s development.
Not so fast. If you’re reading this article, then chances are, you’re a parent who has discovered the myriad challenges of not just luring your sweet angel to bed but keeping them there through the night. Suddenly, sleep has once again become a distant memory as bedtime has been pushed back one, two, three hours because your nights are spent wrangling an excited, overtired toddler who would rather explore every corner of your home than chill out in the comfort of their roomy bed. So, if you’re sick of your evenings being hijacked by a tiny human testing the boundaries of their newfound freedom, then read on for our tips on how to take back bedtime.
First of all, unless you need the crib for the arrival of a new baby, there is no rush to transition your toddler into a bed, especially if he or she has not started climbing out of the crib. “You have to look at the surroundings,” says Lisa Ryan, MD, a board-certified pediatrician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. “If he gets up out of his toddler bed in the middle of the night, can he get into trouble? Is the dresser bolted to the wall? Are there toys here? Can he get out of his room? Can he get out of the house? Those sorts of things are why it’s really important that you wait.”
Also, if you notice that your child still needs you to be in the room with them as they fall asleep, then that’s a sign that he or she isn’t quite ready to leave the crib. “You want to break that habit before you move him or her to a bed,” says Kelly Murray, a certified sleep consultant. “Because what happens is it just becomes a distraction. They’re worried that you’re gonna leave, and then they start pulling shenanigans to ensure that you stay in the room. Make sure they’re falling asleep independently. It will make the transition much smoother.”
“Ideally, it’s advisable to wait until your child is three or older,” Murray continues. “Because at that time, they have more impulse control, and also you can use a system of rewards and consequences to modify their behavior. Younger than that, it’s hard for them to make a connection between their behavior and a consequence.”
However, if “they’re trying to climb out of the crib, then it’s just not a safe option anymore,” says Dr. Ryan. That’s when it’s time to make the switch.
While there are a few helpful hacks out there, such as putting up a baby gate on the door to your child’s room, or using a color-coded alarm clock like OK! to Wake, the key to the toddler bed transition is setting firm limits early on. “One goal is to at least make sure they’re going to stay in the room,” says Dr. Ryan. She suggests giving the child the option of sleeping on the floor, “but it has to be in their room — and they’re just not allowed to come out.”
Molly C. Broder, MD, of Children’s Hospital at Montefiore and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, emphasizes the importance of consistency during this period. “If they’re hopping out of bed and trying to climb into bed with the parents, then just bring them back to their bed and say, ‘No, this is your bed,’ and keep on doing that.”
Dr. Broder recognizes the added challenge of trying to get an exuberant toddler to calm down in these situations, and recommends starting the bedtime routine earlier. “When kids get tired, they can get very overstimulated, and have a hard time settling themselves down,” she says.
Implementing rewards and consequences, like a sticker system, can also be beneficial. If the child has the prospect of a sticker to look forward to in the morning, they’ll have more of a motivation to stay in bed. “One of the most important things is to make sure that you establish bedtime rules,” says Murray. “And the rules are pretty simple: Just lay in bed quietly.” This is where Murray’s suggestion of the OK to Wake! Clock comes in handy: Parents can program the “Green Means Go!” light to switch on at the exact time in the morning the toddler is allowed to leave his or her room.
But if your little one breaks that rule, Murray says that after a couple of warnings, “there has to be an immediate, natural consequence that takes place,” be it a time out or the withholding of a toy. “But then if they follow the rules, then they get a reward in the morning.”
As aggravating as this period can be for sleep-deprived parents, it’s a good time for us to gain some perspective on the matter. Murray, for one, puts a positive spin on toddler resistance: “[Refusing to stay in bed] is a good sign that your child is pushing boundaries,” she says. “Their job is to find out where our control ends and theirs begins.”
“I think for the most part, the novelty wears off pretty quickly,” assures Dr. Ryan. “They’re climbing out of the bed because they can, but then nothing really exciting ever happens. So, [they think], ‘Let me get back in bed.”