From Crib to Toddler Bed: Don’t Rush this Transition

Settled in for sleep with pillow, white noise machine and blanket - in the hallway!

T. made a little bed and settled in for sleep with pillow, white noise machine and blanket – in the hallway!

Time to transition your toddler to a bed? Maybe not.

As your child approaches age two, you might be thinking about making the transition to a toddler bed — don’t do it. I know it’s tempting – your child isn’t a baby anymore. After all, she’s walking, talking, eating at the table and expressing her opinions. It seems natural to move to a bed, but sticking with a crib may save you from many sleepless nights. Here’s why:

  1. Toddlers lack impulse control. Giving your toddler the freedom to get out of bed, but expecting her to stay quietly in place from dusk to dawn and for two hours in the middle of the afternoon is like putting a cookie on her plate, but telling her she can’t have it. Your toddler’s life revolves around YOU and there is virtually no incentive you can provide that will be better than you. This means your child is likely to get out of bed and look for you. This might be at bedtime, in the middle of the night, first thing in the morning, or all three!
  2. Toddlers are irrational. Does your child ask for an apple and then refuse it?  Demand that you cut the apple, then ask for it to be put together again? Now imagine this happening at 4 AM. My youngest is 2.4 right now. He’s still in a crib, but one day while we were getting ready for bed, he took his pillow, blanket, sleep sack, lovey and sound machine out into the hall. He made himself a little bed and settled in for sleep! Why? Who knows?! Toddlers experiment constantly. It’s adorable, but not that great when it’s 4:00 AM and your child is asking you for water, then refusing it, then asking for it, then refusing it.
  3. Safety. Most toddlers get out of bed and look for their parents, but some will climb the bookcase in their room or go to the kitchen to get a snack. Keeping your child in a crib helps to prevent your child ending up in an unsafe situation when you aren’t awake to see what’s happening.
  4. You lose options for problem solving. When your child is in a bed, you limit your options for fixing problems. Many parents end up remaining in their child’s room for an hour or more each night until she falls asleep, because leaving triggers getting out of bed. When your toddler is in a crib, you can choose when to take her out for comfort sessions. When your toddler is in a bed, she may be in the driver’s seat, directing how the night will unfold while you follow orders hoping she’ll go to sleep.
  5. Biology works against you. During toddlerhood, the circadian rhythm (your internal biological clock) shifts about an hour later in the drive for sleep. This happens sometime between age one and age three. The problem is that it’s hard to figure out when that’s happening until it’s too late. Imagine this, you have a child who goes to sleep with no problem and then one day without any rhyme or reason, she’s out of bed 20 times at bedtime, calling for water, asking for more songs, telling you she’s hungry, telling you she’s scared etc. etc. When a toddler isn’t biologically ready for sleep, she will battle. In addition, the nap tends to drift later and stay long throughout toddlerhood, pushing bedtime even later. When you can’t predict what’s happening with your child’s biological sleep drive, it’s hard to anticipate and prevent problems.
  6. Naps go away prematurely. Almost every toddler needs a nap until at least age three (some children need to nap until age six!). Unfortunately, most toddlers have the capacity to fight sleep all day. A toddler in a bed will quickly learn that she can get up, turn on the light and play. This leads most parents to either give up the nap prematurely (often leading to major meltdowns in the evening) or resorting to driving/strolling around every day to get the nap.

There are a few possible exceptions to my suggestions:

  1. If your toddler is climbing out of the crib, then you should try to discourage climbing out. If you have a video monitor watch your child and respond swiftly with a firm “no” each time she tries to climb out. Put a sleep sack on her to restrict her ability to get her leg over the rail. Take out anything that your child could use to use as a stepping stone to get out. You may also do a sleep intervention that involves you staying in the room in order to keep your child in the crib.
  2. If you are a co-sleeping family, but want to transition your toddler to a bed, try to wait until she is close to age three. Whenever you decide to make the transition, you will probably want to set up a mattress in your child’s room and sleep there to help ease the transition.

If your child is still in a crib, I hope I’ve convinced you to keep her there as long as possible. If you’ve moved your child to a bed and are struggling, we can help you make things less stressful and teach you what to do during bumps in the road.
- Erin Flynn-Evans, PhD ALM RPSG, Isis Parenting Sleep Team Co-Leader & Sleep Researcher, Harvard Medical School.

Watch the Transitioning from Crib to Toddler Bed Sleep Webinar for more details and FAQs on this topic.

Looking for more help with Infant and Toddler Sleep? View our library of Sleep Webinar Recordings on a wide variety of age and stage based sleep topics. Prefer more personalized guidance? Isis Parenting’s Sleep Team is here to help! Phone-based sleep consultations are available wherever you live,  to help with highly individualized approaches that fit your goals, situation and parenting style. Learn more about Isis Sleep Consults.

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About Erin Flynn-Evans PhD ALM RPSGT

Erin Flynn-Evans has her PhD in sleep and circadian physiology. Erin has worked in the field of sleep medicine for eleven years and is a researcher at the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham & Women’s Hospital. At Isis Parenting, Erin is co-leader of the Sleep Team and a Senior Sleep Consultant. Her research has involved investigating the effects of light on sleep and the circadian system and she currently leads a project studying sleep in astronauts. She and her husband have two young sons.

2 Responses to From Crib to Toddler Bed: Don’t Rush this Transition
  1. Diane
    September 18, 2013 | 4:05 pm

    Unfortunately, I absolutely disagree with this advice as it does not suite all children. I somtimes co-slept (mattress on his floor) and weaned my child at 16 months at which time he went directly to a toddler bed. He never ONCE, in an entire year, got out of that bad. Every time he would wake (mostly slept through the night) he would call for me or I would hear him babbling in his bed. At about 2.5 he would only get out of his bed in the morning to grab a book by the rocking chair and then get directly back in his bed. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that he learned to open doors that he would actually get out of bed and come climb in bed with us in the middle of the night, if he woke. He will be turning three this month and we still rock and read to him before bedtime but if he doesn’t go right to sleep he now lays in bed and puts himself to sleep – no arguements! He is extremly bright, articulate and sweet…so no developmentally issues, just a good kid. FYI – he NEVER slept in a crib (a bassinet as a newborn, but that was it). So…you article does not fit everyone and I for one would not recommend the crib…I would recommend love and consistency. It takes time, but they are worth it – the tears (from parent or child) not so much! I choose love over tears anyday.

  2. Teresa Stewart
    September 18, 2013 | 10:13 pm

    Hi Diane,

    Thanks for your comment on this blog. We have found (in our experience, with the over 4,000 sleep consults that we have done) that most toddlers do better if they stay in a crib longer; however, it is certainly true that some toddlers make the transition at an earlier age without any problems. Or, as you said, never slept in a crib at all! At Isis it is our mission to support every family and help them achieve their individual sleep goals and for many families, that does include co-sleeping. This article was not intended to be against co-sleeping; only to offer some guidance/ things to consider before a family decides to transition a toddler who is in the crib, to the bed. Please know that when the time comes for the toddler to sleep in the bed, there are also many different strategies to help with this transition- including very gradual methods of keeping the parents in the room with their toddler.

    Thanks again for your feedback.
    Teresa Stewart, MS, MPH
    Sleep Consultant and Program Manager of Safety, Wellness and Sleep Support

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