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Easing the Transition to the Toddler Bed

By Dr. Laura Markham

So your toddler is giving up the crib? Or moving out of the family bed? You’ve been to the store and picked out the cutest toddler bed? All of you are totally excited?

Easing the Transition to the Toddler Be
Easing the Transition to the Toddler Be-

Except instead of rolling over and falling asleep, now your toddler comes out every two minutes to find you? All evening long? And the next day your toddler is a complete basket case because they're so exhausted? Welcome to the Toddler bed!

Kids love the new-found freedom. They can’t help but test the limits. And being all by themselves with no sides can feel very scary.

So how can you get your toddler to form the new habit of falling asleep in the new big-kid bed without you losing your mind?

Be aware, going into this transition, that this is a big move for your child. Naturally, it makes her insecure. She needs your support to learn how to go to sleep in her big-kid bed. Sure, it comes naturally to you. But you've been doing it for many years. To her, this is a new skill, and she needs your help to get used to it.

So cultivate a sense of humor. Tell yourself this is a test to show what a patient parent you are. Don’t expect to have much of an evening for a week or so. Then, just stay calm and keep reinforcing the limit that it’s bedtime. Here’s how:

1. Before you make the big transition, be sure your child has a regular bedtime routine and falls asleep without you next to him.

Then follow that exact routine when he moves to his new bed. (For help with bedtime routines, and teaching your child to fall asleep without you there, see Helping Your Toddler Learn to Put Himself to Sleep.)

2. Introduce the subject by pointing out any friends or cousins with “big kid” beds.

Get your child excited before you get the new bed. Reading books is also a terrific way to introduce the idea; there are links at the end of this article to some good books to check out.

3. Don’t initiate the transition from the crib while your child is potty training, or when you’re moving to a new house.

It might seem easiest not to move the crib, but that’s more change than most little people can handle all at once, and you’ll find that it just isn’t worth it.

4. If you’re moving your child to make room in the crib for a new sibling, be sure the transition occurs a good three months before you expect the new baby.

You want your toddler to be happy in his new bed before he sees an interloper in his crib. If your child is not really ready to leave his crib, you can save yourself and him a lot of grief by borrowing a second crib for awhile, until he’s ready.

5. It’s a good idea if the toddler bed can be in the same place where his crib was.

If your kids will share the room, move the crib (for the new baby) to a new place in the room if you can.

6. If at all possible, let your child pick the bed.

If someone is giving or loaning you a toddler bed, stress to your child that she gets Cousin Jane’s bed now because she is almost as big as Cousin Jane. When the bed is delivered, let your child help unpack and assemble it.

7. If you're using a regular twin bed, consider starting off with the mattress on the floor...

...rather than on a bed frame, for both safety and coziness. You can add the bed frame in a couple of years.

8. Make the new bed cozy, like a little den.

It’s important to make sure you use as many things from the crib as possible (blankets, for instance) so that he feels comfortable in the new bed. It’s fine to let him pick out new superhero sheets, but his crib blanket is what he’ll need most. Most kids love being surrounded by stuffed animals. Be sure to use guardrails; in addition to being more safe, they help kids feel more secure, so he's less likely to keep getting out of bed.

9. If your bedtime routine does not include audio, consider adding it.

Many toddlers fall asleep more easily while listening to familiar, calming music. Over time, as soon as they hear the music, it will become a cue for their body to begin settling into sleepiness. Depending on the age of your child, there are also wonderful bedtime story and relaxation audios, but you'll need to read reviews and listen in advance to be sure they're age appropriate. The great thing about a story, even one that's repeated every night, is that it keeps your child's attention so she doesn't get worried and keep coming to find you.

10. Before the big night, act out the scenario with stuffed animals.

Your toddler will watch avidly as the little elephant kisses mama or daddy goodnight and snuggles under the covers in his own bed. Have the parent sing the little elephant the same good night songs you sing to your little one. This will help him understand what's going to happen.

11. On the big night, initiate bedtime an hour earlier than usual.

Explain to your child that she is going to sleep in the big bed tonight. Go through the normal bedtime routine. What you do next depends on your child. Some kids can handle it if you sit in the doorway of the room, reading with a book light, while they fall asleep. But most kids need us to sit right next to them, on the bed. That way she feels your presence acutely, which will give her great reassurance. Of course, if you need to cuddle her so she feels safe enough to fall asleep, by all means do so. She doesn't need to get out of bed to find you, so she’ll develop the habit of snuggling down and going to sleep rather than of getting out of bed to look for you.

12. If he tries to engage you in conversation, just say “We’ll talk tomorrow. It’s sleep time now.”

Keep your attitude positive, respectful, and detached. Be boring and consistent.

13. If he starts to get out of bed, say "It's bedtime, you need to stay in bed."

Move closer so you can gently keep him in bed if he starts to get up. Stay calm, respectful, and empathic, as in “It’s a big change, sleeping in your new bed. Soon you’ll be used to it.” But don’t let him get out of bed. You don’t want him developing that habit. Stay as close to the bed as you need to, to start. This eases the transition and lets your child learn to fall asleep in the new bed. Are you developing a bad habit? No, this is a transition, and you will be able to ease out of it, once your child is comfortable in the bed.

14. If your child cries, comfort her.

Some children are very frightened of their parent leaving, and will cling to you. In that case, remind yourself that this fear needs expression, and don't leave your child alone to cry. Instead, when she begins crying, stay with her and let her cry as much as she needs to. As she begins to stop, let her know that now you'll be leaving. In other words, you don't actually ever leave her crying. You simply remind her that you'll be leaving, and then help her with the anxiety that surfaces. Stay as close as you need to, to comfort her -- and move only as far away as you need to so that her fear comes up. After she "shows you" her fear, it will evaporate. Yes, that may take a few days, but sooner or later she will no longer be frightened when you say you need to leave.

Is this sleep training? It would be more accurate to say that your child was having a hard time separating from you to fall asleep, so you helped her surface and dissolve the fears that were causing her separation anxiety. Notice that you never left her alone to cry. Instead, you announced your plan to leave and then helped your child through her fearful reaction. Anxiety—another word for fear—is often at the root of children’s sleep issues. While there is nothing at all wrong with a toddler sharing her parents’ bed, children who can verbally understand are certainly capable of sleeping alone, once they get some help with their fears.

15. Give lots of positive acknowledgment when he does fall asleep in his own bed without trying to get out, and even for progress in the right direction.

"I noticed that I only had to remind you twice to stay in bed last night. You must be so proud of yourself. Soon you will feel so good in your new bed that you'll be able to snuggle right down and go to sleep all by yourself!"

16. If you’ve been in the bed until your child falls asleep...

... gradually move yourself so you're just holding hands and sitting in a chair. Then, stop holding his hand. Then, move your chair further away until you’re sitting in the doorway. This could take you a month, but it might just be a week.

17. If your little one has a hard time falling asleep night after night, consider the possibility that he’s over-tired from falling asleep later than usual, and move his bedtime earlier.

Toddlers have to pump themselves full of cortisol and adrenaline to stay up later than usual, and that makes it harder to fall asleep. Oddly enough, an earlier bedtime usually solves the problem when the child is just too wound-up to relax. Another helpful thing to try: roughhousing. Not right before bed, because it winds the child up, but earlier, before dinner or before bath. Laughter reduces the stress hormones circulating in the body and helps the child relax at bedtime.

18. Within a few days of your sitting in the doorway, your child will be falling asleep without trying to get out of bed, and you can begin leaving for a few minutes, and then for longer periods of time.

Just say you'll be right back, and keep checking back. It helps to leave the chair in place, like a sentinel, to reassure your child if she looks for you.

19. If your toddler just can’t seem to fall asleep, you might consider letting her take books (not toys) to bed with her.

If you have a nightlight, or enough light from the hall, she can "read" herself to sleep. Lots of adults need to read a bit before they fall asleep. It isn't such a bad habit for her to develop, as long as she actually falls asleep. Just be sure the light is very dim, so it doesn't keep her up.

Recommended Resources

Lawrence Shapiro's book is specifically for kids who have been sharing the family bed and are moving to their own bed.


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