When preparing to welcome your little one home, so much time and energy is spent creating the perfect nursery or space for your baby to rest their heads. You select your theme, colors, and accessories with great care, and you look for a crib that will keep your child safe as well as fit the decor you have in mind. You use Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration and work with talented artists and sewists on Etsy to design and create the perfect space.
You've brought your baby home, spend hours cuddling, rocking, and feeding them in their rooms and gently lay them in their cribs to sleep. After a while, the question starts to niggle at you, especially when your little cherub is proudly standing in their crib because they've figured out how to use the slats to pull themselves up into a standing position. We all have had it run through our heads. "Is it time to move them into a toddler/big kid bed?"
The short answer: No.
I have worked with many families whose littles were under the age of three and they were struggling to keep their toddler in their beds. Like many families, when the child turned 18 months or two, they transitioned their child into a toddler bed because, well their child was now a toddler and should be in a toddler bed. Right?
However, they started experiencing that their once great, easy sleeper, cooperative, and agreeable little tot started becoming a terrible sleeper, uncooperative, and quite disagreeable (especially at 2:00 in the morning) little heathen. Gone were the restful, peaceful nights and here to stay were the multiple nightwakings, tantrums and fits at bedtime, and demands for bottles, Mommy and Daddy to lie down with them, or whines to sleep in Mommy and Daddy's bed. In most cases, my families had no idea what had happened or changed that would make their good sleeper become an awful sleeper.
It was because their child wasn't ready to transition to a big kid bed. Every single time.
Change Comes With a Cost
Children are creatures of habit. They do best when their routines are the same, their schedule doesn't doesn't change, the expectations don't change, and when it comes to sleep, when their sleeping environment doesn't change. As it is, life is full of change, so at some point, children will have to learn to adapt to change. However, adapting to the change can, and will, come with a cost.
If you change your child's sleeping environment by taking the crib away and put in a toddler bed before your child to ready to handle and understand what that transition means, then they will revert to trying to figure out how to adapt to the change using their own ways. When their faith and security in their bed is taken away, because their bed is no longer there, then they seek it in other forms. In most cases, this manifests in the forms demanding security in something else: a bottle, Mommy, Daddy, needing to be rocked, or cuddled. These searches for security quickly manifests themselves into sleep props. Now, you have a toddler that cannot, and will not, fall asleep without their prop. Plus they won't sleep in their beds either. This can create a pretty desperate situation all around.
Put It Into Perspective
Imagine if you had your familiar, comfortable bed that you fondly looked forward to sleeping in every night. It smelled like you, the blankets envelope you just right, and everything was the same every night, making it easy for you to lay back, close your eyes, and dream sweet dreams. All of a sudden, your bed gets taken out of your room, and in it's place is a large, mattress-sized box filled with packing peanuts with new bedding to fit the box. Then you're expected to sleep in that every night, just like you always had in the past. How long do you think that it'd take for you to comfortable to sleep in the new bed? Or do you think you might find yourself sleeping on the couch, or seeking refuge in a chair? Oh, sure, after awhile, you might realize that sleeping on the packing peanuts is actually quite nice, but how many sleepless nights do you think it'd take for you to get there? If it was done with no appearance of an explanation or sense of logic to it, how do you think you might feel? Confused? Uncertain? Scared even?
While I know that toddler and kid-sized mattresses are much more comfortable than a box full of packing peanuts, and the fact that your child is still in their familiar room in a safe home, the reality of facing and adjusting to the change of a new bed is the same. As an adult, you have developed and matured your sense of logic and reasoning so when your sleeping environment or setup changes, you are better able to adapt to these types of changes. A child younger than three, simply does not. Their brain is still developing these skills, and responses to big changes are usually led by instinct. This is where seeking more comfort from their parents, or an object like a bottle or nursing with Mom become common methods that a child uses to respond to the change.
Keep It the Same
Coming back to the families that sought my help in getting their child to become a good sleeper again. In all of those cases, I recommended that their child go back into the crib. The change from the crib to the toddler bed is what triggered the changes in their child's night sleeps and naps, and their child was simply demonstrating that they were not ready to handle that type of transition yet. When the crib was brought back into the room, and we worked to re-establish the old rules and routines at bedtime, their sweet sleeper was emerged again, and my families all enjoyed the benefits of good sleep once again.
My best recommendation is to keep your child in their crib until at least age three. Even then, keep them in their crib and take the side rail off and attach a toddler bed rail to the crib. Keep them in their crib as long as you can, until your child is old enough to handle discussions about sleeping in a big kid bed, and work from there. If you have no reason to change your child's bed other than what society thinks you should, don't do it.
Many of my families brought up valid concerns of having a crib for the next child to sleep in. I encouraged them to consider purchasing a second crib for the next baby. Cribs have become incredibly versatile, having the ability to grow from a crib, to a toddler bed, and even a twin or double bed depending on what you get. If you can, invest in those styles of cribs and you'll never have to buy another bed as long as your child lives with you, other than having to buy the appropriate size mattress for when the time to transition into a twin or double bed comes.
Another concern that was brought up frequently was that their child would climb out of the crib, and they worried about their child getting hurt. In those cases, I would recommend either that they drop the mattress to the floor inside the crib or turn the crib around so that the shorter side was on the wall. With the crib rails no longer being movable, putting the mattress on the floor or turning the crib around are easy ways to make it harder for your child to get out of their crib.
Additionally, I stress it to parents that they need to make it very clear to their child that they are to stay in bed when it is time to sleep, and if their child gets out of bed, they must put them back in bed. Every single time. Let your child know you mean business and that no matter how many times your child gets out of bed, they will find themselves back in bed in no time. I know that it can get exhausting and frustrating. But look at it this way... would you rather deal with teaching your child that they are to stay in their beds for a week, maybe two, or deal with a nighttime visitor complete with demands and cries for months, even years? You're going to be tired with either choice, but one scenario lasts a lot longer than the other.
In The End
In the end, honor and respect your child's want and need to feel secure in their own sleeping environment. Keep them in their crib where it is familiar for as long as you can. Or at the very least, wait until your child turns three and is better able to understand and handle the move into a big kid bed. It's a big change, and it's important that your child is truly ready to handle such a change before introducing it to them.
If you're struggling to keep your toddler in bed or need help getting your child to sleep through the night in their crib or their big kid bed, contact me for your FREE 15 minute phone call and we'll talk about what's happening with you and your little one and how I can help you.
I am a Pediatric Sleep Consultant who works with families to help them resolve their littles' sleep issues. As a mom of two littles herself, Katie has walked in the shoes of her clients and is passionate about helping them re-discover peaceful sleeps in their own homes.