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The Move to a Big-Kid Bed

asian child holding stuffed animal in bed

The shift from crib to bed does not come with a one-size-fits-all template. No two children are ready for it at the same time or handle it the same way. Circling a date for the transition on your calendar based solely on your child’s age is a mistake. Instead, take your cue from your little one.

“Even though some experts suggest 18 months of age and a height of three feet as a guideline for when to switch to a bed, the timeline may vary from child to child,” says Dr. Ilya Bialik, chief of inpatient pediatrics at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. “Parents should look for signs that their child is saying, ‘Get me out of this crib!’ Most children will start climbing out on a daily basis. Others may say that they want a bed.”

“Rattling the crib side rails is also a strong signal for change,” says Dr. Mark Lew, pediatrician at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. “Other circumstances, such as the anticipated arrival of a new sibling, may affect transition timing. I strongly suggest parents lower the crib to minimize the fall distance for ‘successful’ escape attempts.”

Baby steps

If your toddler seems ready to leave the crib behind, the next step is finding a suitable bed. If you can convert your crib into a toddler bed, you are ahead of the game — for now. While convenient in the short term, a toddler bed will probably not work for your child for long, as most have a weight limit of 50 pounds. For a longer-term solution, shop for a low-profile twin bed with a railing and no areas where little hands and feet can get stuck. While the search for a bed is underway, follow these tips to lay the groundwork for the big switch.

Get your child’s input. Let your child help pick out the bed and sheets. Allowing him to feel a sense of ownership in the process may make the adjustment easier. Beds with decorative-themed frames, such as race cars, superheroes, princess carriages, or even stickers and decals, can make the process more fun and individualized.

Take a toddler’s-eye view of your little one’s room. “Once they start sleeping in a bed, toddlers can leave their sleep space freely, which means parents should be sure the room is fully childproofed,” says Dr. Lew. “Parents need to look around at toddler level and ensure that their child can’t pull anything off of the dresser or pull the drawers out and climb on them. Safety plugs for outlets are also essential. Families who live on more than one level need to put safety gates at the stairs.”

Create hype. Talking about the impending change to a new bed — how much fun it will be and how proud you are of your child—will build excitement. Reinforce all stages of this adventure.

The road to sweet dreams

Even a toddler who initially seemed happy about the transition may get out of the new bed repeatedly. This behavior can be frustrating, but it is normal.

“The freedom to get out of bed on their own can transform some children from good sleepers into restless ones,” Dr. Lew says. “They may be unable to fall asleep as easily as they used to, or they may wander during the night or wake up too early. Toddlers are used to boundaries like a crib. Suddenly having the freedom to move from room to room without asking can be exciting for them.”

To discourage after-hours exploration and foster more restful nights, keep everything else as consistent as possible.

“Place the new bed exactly where the child’s crib was,” says Dr. Bialik. “Keep the same nightly routine —bathing, bedtime stories, tucking in. Be prepared for toddlers to want to explore the new setup. They will, most likely, get out of bed a few times, despite your best efforts.”

When that happens, experts recommend returning your child to his or her room swiftly and without fanfare to avoid encouraging a repeat of the behavior for attention. You may have to do this a few times. Set ground rules, like “no getting out of bed except to go to the bathroom.” Praise your child when he or she sleeps through the night.

“It may be necessary to stay in the room for a while until the toddler falls asleep,” Dr. Lew says. “Reassurance and consistency will prevail, so be patient.” In a few days or weeks, once the child has adjusted to the new bed, you should both be getting a good night’s sleep.

Navigating night terrors

For some children, falling asleep in a new bed is not easy. When their entry into dreamland is delayed, they are more likely to experience a type of sleep disorder called night terrors.

Most common in young children, night terrors are interruptions in sleep that occur during the first few hours of slumber. Their cause is unclear, but they may be related to a developing central nervous system. Stress and lack of sleep, among other factors, may be triggers. “There is some evidence that blood sugar levels may play a role in sleep terrors,” says Dr. Lew. “Drinking a rich smoothie or milkshake before bed helps many toddlers.”

When night terrors occur, children may yell, flail, sweat, and breathe quickly. Many remain asleep throughout the episode, but others wake suddenly in a disoriented state. Night terrors usually last for a few minutes. Most children fall asleep again afterward, and they have no memory of what happened by the next morning. Night terrors are more common in families with a history of sleepwalkers.

If a night terror episode occurs, the best thing that parents can do for children is to be a comforting presence. Rather than trying to wake their children, parents should sit or stand quietly by the bed, gently prevent them from getting up if they try to sleepwalk, ensure that they cannot hurt themselves by thrashing, and reassure them if they do wake up. Frequent or severe night terrors are a reason to consult a pediatrician.

Parents can help keep their children’s sleep peaceful by ensuring that they get enough of it. Patience and persistence often pay off: Night terrors usually decrease or disappear as children age.

For more health tips for kids, check out our tip sheets. To find a pediatrician in Brooklyn, please call 718-499-2273 or visit nyp.org/pediatrics.

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