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Ask the Pediatrician: When to switch from a crib to a ‘big kid’ bed

Once your toddler can climb out of their crib, it may be time to transition to a “big kid” bed. Your child may have a heady sense of freedom the first few nights after moving permanently to a bed. Luckily, most kids are happy to “graduate” and stay in their beds more willingly than they did in their cribs. However, for a few, the transition has to be managed closely.

After the switch, try to continue with the same bedtime routine you have used since your child joined the family. Follow these steps:

1. When you end a routine, tell your child to stay in bed until you come for them.

2. If they get out of bed, calmly and quietly lead them back and tell them they must stay in bed.

3. When they get back into bed, reward them by briefly telling them what a good sleeper they are for being there, then leave the room.

4. Tell them you will come and check on them during the night. For some children, this provides reassurance.

But don’t kid yourself that the struggle is over. Be prepared to repeat steps 1 and 2 as many times as you have to for several nights in a row. Twenty “farewell appearances” in one evening is by no means an unusual number.

Above all, stay calm and keep interactions with your child on a low-key level; they should be brief and boring. The aim is to reward them with praise for staying in bed and not for getting out.

Children tend to feel that any attention is better than none. If getting out of bed brings your toddler extra attention — even negative attention, by making you upset — they’ll do it again and again. By contrast, if you keep the atmosphere quiet and even boring, the excitement of getting out will soon pale.

While respecting your toddler’s newfound mobility, insist on the rule that once it’s time for sleep, people have to stay in bed until morning unless they have to go to the bathroom. Avoid rewarding bedroom breakouts by allowing your child to climb into your bed or join the members of the family who are still up. Instead, praise them in the morning for having stayed in bed all night.

If your child is going to climb out of bed whether you want them to or not, let them know that the only time climbing out is acceptable is when sleep or nap time is over.

In addition, you should make their room as safe and hazard-free as you can. While you are waiting to get a new bed, place the crib mattress on the floor. Clear away furniture and large toys, like rocking horses, that could injure your child if they fell against them. You may need to install a safety gate across your toddler’s bedroom door to keep them from wandering when you are not awake. You will also need a gate at the top of the stairs to prevent possible injury when your toddler gets out of bed.

Also, take steps to prevent dressers and other furniture from tipping over and injuring your child. Install childproof latches on chests of drawers or tape drawers shut so they can’t be pulled out and used as steps.

If you have any questions about your child’s sleep space or routine, talk with their pediatrician.

Dr. Rachel Y. Moon is a pediatrician and sudden infant death syndrome researcher at the University of Virginia.

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