Uh oh! Maybe you’ve noticed a little leg stretching for the crib railing. Or witnessed a precarious straddle over the edge. Maybe you’ve been surprised by a full-scale escape. (“Hi, Mama!”) A climbing toddler is starting to challenge the confines of his cozy crib.
Time to move to a big-kid bed?
Maybe not so fast, many child-sleep experts say.
“A lot of people do it way too early,” says Kelly Weygandt, certified child-sleep consultant and pediatric registered nurse in St. Louis and the director of research and development for the Family Sleep Institute.
The risk: You trade one problem—crib escapes—for verrrrry challenging bedtimes.
The case for stalling
Watch out for crib-busting within a few months of the first birthday. That’s when some toddlers start. “At about 16 to 18 months, kids are experimenting with different types of movement—running, jumping, climbing—and putting their skills to the test,” says Joan Becker Friedman, a certified child-sleep consultant and registered nurse in Milwaukee.
If yours is super-active or ahead on physical milestones, he or she will probably try it sooner. Once you see deft climbing onto furniture and up stairs, look out.
But here’s the trouble: “Toddlers this age aren’t really cognitively able to understand the boundaries or rules that go with a big-kid’s bed,” Weygandt says. That’s why, she adds, there’s really no rush to move to that.
“It’s really best if you can keep them in the crib until closer to 3 or even after age 3 if you can,” says Friedman.
Or at least, stall until you can’t!
“Chronic climbers”—those who catch on quickly to catapulting out of the crib and do it repeatedly despite your best efforts—need to move out of it no matter what their age.
There comes a point where safety trumps convenience. Of the nearly 10,000 kids under age 2 who visit U.S. emergency rooms each year for injuries due to a baby-bed mishap, most have climbed out of their crib and fallen, say researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Most cribs are outgrown when a child reaches 35 inches in height.
If you need the crib for a younger sibling but your older one is still placid there, consider buying time with a bassinet or bedside crib for the baby, or even using two cribs.
How to stall the switchover
These tactics can buy you a few more precious months of stay-put sleep:
Treat an attempted crib-break like any other “test” of limits.
Just as you’d try to stop a child from, say, climbing up onto a table or scaling a bookcase, quickly and firmly let your child know it’s not okay to climb the side of the crib, because it’s not safe.
It’s best if you catch your child in the act, rather than after she’s already made it out of the crib, so you can correct the behavior immediately and the climber will better link your message with the behavior. Friedman suggests watching a video monitor or “camping out” just outside your child’s bedroom to monitor her for a bit after you’ve tucked her in. That’s a common time for kids to make an attempt.
When your child starts to climb, help her back down and simply say, “No! That’s not safe.” Don’t engage in conversation—just say good night and leave the room again. Repeat this over and over, in a neutral, bored-sounding way so you don’t turn it into a game. Most kids will eventually give up and settle down in the crib, she says.
Climb-proof the crib.
Adapt your child’s crib to make it harder to climb as his or her height and abilities advance.
If you have a crib with a shorter side facing out (to make it easier for you to pick up your child), rotate the crib so the taller side is more of an obstacle. If the crib has adjustable heights, use the lowest mattress setting, making the sides higher. (It’s best to do this as soon as your child can pull up and stand in the crib, even before scrambling out seems likely.)
Even those cute stuffed animals can become co-conspirators. “Take everything out of the crib that can be used as a stepping stool or launching pad to get over,” Friedman says.
Also skip the crib tents, which are frowned on by doctor and safety groups. Kids can get tangled in the fabric and strangle, says Consumer Reports. And many are under recall.
Go back to using a sleep sack.
Sleep sacks aren’t just for infants. The comfortable wearable blankets help soothe bigger kids to sleep—and keep limbs from stretching and perching over the crib railing. It may take a few days for a toddler to get used to one again, Friedman says, but parents often find it works like a charm to extend crib time.
Got a wily one who can work zippers? Put the sleep sack on backwards to keep the zipper pull out of reach!
Child-proof your child’s room.
“Make sure the bedroom is totally safe,” Friedman says. You won’t be there to supervise middle-of-the-night antics. So run an extra check to make sure toys with small parts, arts and craft supplies, and other choking hazards have been put out of reach.
Secure the dresser and other furniture to the wall so they can’t topple over on your child. Also move them away from the crib so they don’t become handy “stepping stones” for getting out of it.
Friedman suggests placing some cushions or an extra mattress below the crib to make for a softer landing—just in case.
When you can’t delay any longer…switch to a big-kid bed.
Once your toddler has climbed out more than a few times, it’s time to make the switch to a bed, for safety’s sake. (Some kids seem perfectly content in the crib—but most want out eventually.) The type of bed is a matter of sheer preference. A toddler bed (which uses a crib mattress) might seem crib-like and make your child more inclined to stay in it longer. Some families start by just moving the crib mattress to the floor. Other kids get on board excitedly with the idea of a big-kid bed.
Whatever the setting, focus on setting up your child for success: Tell him what you expect him to do at bedtime. Try introducing the idea of “good sleep manners” (just like there are table manners and preschool manners). It’s what you expect him to do at bedtime. For example:
- We go to bed at a certain time.
- We stay quiet once we’re tucked in.
- We stay in the bed until Mommy or Daddy (or a special toddler clock) lets you know it’s time to get up.
Consider installing a safety gate to keep your child in his room. Introduce it as the new boundary, Friedman says, not as a punishment or negative consequence of climbing out of the crib. (Beware, though, that a chronic climber may tackle the gate as his next project.)
Keep to a consistent bedtime routine—the whole bath-PJs-storytime wind-down is especially important to cue Now It’s Sleeping Time when your child has this newfound freedom to explore after bedtime. Weygandt suggests using a short-and-sweet “night-night phrase” to signal that your routine is ending and now it’s time for shut-eye, such as “Good night, sleep tight” or simply “Night-night.”
And then… expect your toddler to get right back up after tuck-in! Silently walk her back to bed, tuck her back in, and leave her with your usual night-night phrase.
“You just have to be very brief and very firm,” Friedman says. And consistent. It may take 10 to 20 times in one night for a bedtime to stick, especially with a younger or persistent child. But consistency usually pays off, with most parents seeing significant improvement in bedtime behavior in one to two weeks, she says.
Welcome to a new phase
Timing really does make a big difference in how smoothly the transition to a big-kid bed goes, sleep experts say. So, at the first signs of climbing, stall, stall, and stall some more, until—inevitably—a big-kid bed becomes truly necessary. Even an extra month or two of everybody sleeping like a baby is golden.
Photos from top: Jessica Mertz/Flickr (2)