Easing the Transition to the Toddler Bed
So she’s 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?
Except instead of rolling over and falling asleep, now she comes out every two minutes to find you? All evening long? And the next day she’s a basket case because she’s 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 herself with no sides is a bit scary.
So how can you get her to form the new habit of falling asleep in her new big-girl bed without losing your mind?
aware, going into this transition, that this is a big move for your
child and naturally makes her insecure. 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 this transitional week.
Then, just stay calm and keep reinforcing the limit that it’s bedtime.
1. Before you make the big transition, be sure your child has a regular bedtime routine. Then follow that exact routine when he moves to his new bed. (For help with bedtime routines, 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. Reading books is also a terrific way to introduce the idea; one great book to read is Your Own Big Bed by Rita Bergstein. Get him excited before you get the new bed.
3. Don’t initiate the transition from the crib while he’s toilet 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 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 two 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 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, start off with the mattress on the floor rather than on a bedframe, for both safety and coziness. You can add the bed frame in a couple of years.
8. Make his 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.
9. If your bedtime routine does not include music, consider adding it. Many toddlers fall asleep more easily while listening to familiar, calming music. Over time, as soon as they hear the music, their body will begin settling into sleepiness. Depending on the age of your child, there are also wonderful bedtime story tapes, but you'll need to read reviews and listen in advance to be sure they're age appropriate.
10. Before the big night, act out the scenario with stuffed animals. Your toddler will watch avidly as the little elephant kisses mama 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 her understand what's going to happen.
11. On the big night, initiate bedtime an hour earlier than usual.
Go through the normal bedtime routine. Then sit in the doorway of the
room, reading with a book light, while your child falls asleep. That
way she feels your presence acutely, which will give her great
reassurance. 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 up 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. While you’re sitting in the doorway, if he starts to get out of bed, say "It's bedtime, you need to stay in bed." Move your chair so you’re sitting next to the bed and 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.
14. If your child cries, comfort him. Empathize with him that this is all very new. Tell him that he needs to learn to sleep in his new bed, but that you will help him by staying with him. 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. Of course, if you need to cuddle him so he feels safe enough to fall asleep, by all means do so. You can gradually cuddle less and less as the bed becomes more familiar to him.
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 "tells" you about 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 good in your own bed by yourself."
16. If you’ve been sitting by the bed until your child falls asleep, gradually move your chair further away until you’re sitting in the doorway.
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.
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.
Lawrence Shapiro's book is specifically for kids who have been sharing the family bed and are moving to their own bed.