I have a confession. Whenever parents ask me when to transition their toddler from the crib to a bed, I’m tempted to give a smart-aleck answer. “When she leaves for college”. Even though I sound like a jerk when I say it, there’s a reason for my answer, as you’ll see.
I know that parents are really asking a different question. It depends on the age and developmental stage of the toddler. Maybe they are expecting a new baby. I asked myself the same question twice, once for each boy. There was a different answer for each one, which I’ll get to.
The Transition Question
Many parents are justifiably afraid that the toddler is going to climb out of the crib and hurt herself. This is totally understandable. Surely we’d like to be able to predict the very moment that the toddler becomes physically able to climb out of the crib, and transition her to a bed the day before!
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know when exactly she’ll have the upper body strength and coordination to accomplish the escape maneuver. And even if she is both strong enough and coordinated enough, it is not a stone-cold certainty that she’ll use those abilities.
I know, I know… it’s like Murphy’s Law of Toddlers: if she can do it, she will do it. Perhaps, but not necessarily.
So it may be impossible to know when exactly when she’ll try to make her getaway, but she’ll probably give you clues. Most toddlers will try to climb out right in front of their parents! The first move, and this is a key one, is to get one leg to the top of the rail and to work it over as in this picture.
Stand and Deliver
One thing is for certain: no toddler is going to climb out before she can stand up on her own! When your toddler can do this, it’s time to lower the mattress so that the rail is relatively higher. I recommend lowering it as far as it will go. One web site even recommends performing surgery on your crib to lower the mattress all the way to the floor. I don’t recommend doing this unless you are absolutely certain that a) you won’t destroy the crib in the process and b) the crib continues to be a safe place for the toddler to sleep. In other words, you don’t want the mattress or parts of the toddler to get stuck on underneath the crib!
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Murphy’s Law for Toddlers in Action
If your toddler is doing the “leg thing” despite your having lowered the mattress as far as it can go, it’s time to transition to a bed. Here’s why (and it’s the main point of this post):
The crib has one purpose and one purpose only: to keep your child safe. The moment the crib stops being a safe place for her, you need to move her out.
Some parents try to prevent the child from escaping with tents or other contraptions. I’m not even going to provide a link to these devices. Murphy’s Law applies. At best, toddlers figure out how to climb out despite the tent. At worst, they kids get stuck and hurt themselves. I do not recommend tents. If your toddler is motivated enough, she will find a way out.
No one wants to risk a toddler hurting herself badly. I’m certain that there have been some very bad accidents resulting from a crib escape attempt. Here’s the thing, though: in over 20 years I’ve never seen one. I’ve seen injuries from babies rolling out of bed (don’t get me started on that one!) I’ve seen injuries from falls down stairs. I’ve seen injuries from dad’s tripping over toddler gates while holding the baby in his arms… but never a crib escape injury. I don’t say that to give you the green light to let your toddler climb out. I only say it to try and reassure you that if she climbs out, the result is probably not going to be catastrophic.
So when to parents typically make the transition? The honest answer is: the day they hear the “thud” of the sound of the toddler having made a successful escape. I call this “moving day”.
This is that day that parents rush out and buy a bed if they have not already done so. I cannot blame them. Remember: the crib is meant to keep the baby safe. It has no other purpose. The moment it stops doing its job is the moment to move her out! This was the case for our first child. We heard the thud. We bought the bed. Easy decision.
Another common reason for making the transition is that mom is expecting a new baby, and there’s only one crib. In these cases, common sense tells you that you should move the toddler out well before baby comes home. That way, the toddler won’t feel like her place is being taken over by the intruder. Even though this is common sense, I have to confess I do not know if the idea has ever been tested! I have never seen or read of any cases where the toddler was kicked out of her crib on the day the baby comes home. So the truth is, we don’t know what the effect will be.
One thing is for certain. If mom is pregnant, the toddler knows that something is going on. Mom’s behavior changes: she’s tired more often, maybe she’s grumpier than usual. Maybe the stress level in the house is rising. Toddlers read all these signals and respond to them. I’m not sure the timing of the transition makes all that much of a difference: the toddler already knows that something is going on and may be anxious about it.
About those explanations…
It doesn’t do much good to explain to her that there’s a baby in mom’s belly. Even if your toddler is intelligent enough to understand it, there’s no way she’ll be prepared when the new baby arrives. Here’s why: there’s no way YOU will be prepared when the new baby arrives! Even though you understand it conceptually and intellectually, you are never prepared for the reality. How much more so for a toddler who hasn’t developed abstract reasoning skills!
Some experts recommend making the transition when the baby comes home from the hospital. The theory is that the baby will be sleeping in moms room for around four months, so the toddler would have time to adjust to the new situation. Again, I get it. It makes sense. But I have no idea if the psychology works.
The best advice I can come up with is this: have the toddler sleeping elsewhere before you put the baby down in the crib. How you get it done is entirely your choice.
We Really Need the Room
What if the child never climbs out? Is it possible to keep her in the crib for too long? I’m not sure it is possible! This is why I make the joke about college. Remember, the purpose of the crib is safety. As long as she’s sleeping safely, why rock the boat?
By the time Boy#2 was about 2 1/2, he had not ever tried to climb out of his crib. Maybe he was physically able. He simply didn’t want to climb out. But his 5 year-old brother was sleeping in his own bedroom, and we really wanted to convert the nursery into an office. So at dinner one night we asked the boys “Would you guys like to share a room?” We asked this while nodding our heads and smiling (I call this “the Jedi Mind Trick“). They enthusiastically agreed and that was that.
The next day Boy#2 had his bed. The transition didn’t go so well. He refused to sleep in his new bed, but he did agree to sleep on the floor next to it. Problem solved.
Making the transition from crib to bed is never easy. Sometimes it’s traumatic, for parents as well as the toddler. How to smooth the transition is the subject of another post. But the decision of when to make the move should be easy:
- If she climbs out of the crib, the crib is no longer a safe place to sleep. Time to move!
- If she doesn’t climb out, and she’s sleeping well, there’s no reason to rush the move.
- If you need the crib for a new baby, make the transition before you’re ready to put the little one in the crib, but exactly when you do this does not matter much.