Transitioning to a Toddler Bed | Do this from day one to keep them in bed

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The toddler bed symbolizes the beginning of endless stalling, our child’s sudden increased dehydration level, and the futile battle to get the blanket “just right”.  It doesn’t have to mean constant visits from our little one! 

There is a lot of advice about getting your toddler to transition to a big bed well and stay in bed. Some of it is good, but most of it isn’t helpful. Here is all you need to know so the transition is smooth and your sanity is saved. 

First things first…
Don’t skip These Steps!

Timing is key…

This transition to a toddler bed usually takes place between 1.5 -3.5 years old, so the gap is large! This just means you must assess your child and make the move when they are ready. The only mistake we can make is if we force something that our child isn’t ready for. 

Please keep in mind, that grandma doesn’t know when they are ready, the baby book you’re reading doesn’t know when they’re ready, and your friend whose kid has been sleeping in a toddler bed “since they turned one with no problems!” doesn’t know when your kid is ready. Only you do. 

Things to consider…

Are there any major changes coming? Is there a new baby on the way, are you moving to a new home? 

Any change in your child’s world will cause a disruption to their systems, so avoid simultaneously adding this bed transition if possible. Ideally, if you can make the bed transition before a major change takes place, it can help lay a good foundation for sleep and keep you from juggling too much. 

Will they begin potty training soon or have they already begun?

Potty training is a huge milestone and takes so much more effort than seasoned parents share! Your child may be ready for potty training and a toddler bed all at the same time. That being said, we don’t want to push them in so many areas that they get overwhelmed and can’t do anything well. Help them focus and when you feel they are in a good rhythm then go for the next milestone. 

Things to do…or to avoid doing when transitioning to a toddler bed

  1. If you choose to make the transition when your child is younger, make sure the room is safe with a baby gate on the door. We want to keep anyone from wandering around a dark house at night. 
  2. Cut sugars or have them earlier in the day. Sugar, even just a little, can destroy a child’s sleep. Match that with the freedom of a toddler bed and you’re begging for trouble. 
  3. Have a way to monitor what they are doing. At the beginning of teaching your child to stay in their toddler bed, it can be extremely useful to know what’s going on in their room. We want to teach our children to be safe and honest. To do that, we need to call them out if they are getting up after bedtime and going for a casual stroll around their room. We want to limit the opportunities they have to deceive us and teach them to be trustworthy. 
  4. Make their bed a haven but their bedroom boring. The toys can be taken out just while we train them to stay in their bed. Let’s make it as easy as possible for our little learners and remove the temptations. At the very least, keep toys put away or stuffed in a closet. Out of sight out of mind. 
  5. Expect them to get up. They won’t be perfect. But, if you keep healthy boundaries in place and invest the effort at the start of the transition, then bedtime struggles should end quickly. 
  6. Establish a bedtime routine. This is where we ask more of ourselves before we ask more of our children. You’ve heard it being preached since that baby was brought home that we need bedtime routines! Routines help frame their expectations.
    Children can accept their bedtime fate and get the last bits of love and support that they need before the fateful moment when you leave their room. If you rush at this point of the night our children can fall asleep feeling abandoned. They might feel that way anyway, so it’s best if we know that there was nothing more we could do for them within reason.
  7. Put them to bed at the right time. So, not too early and not too late, easy right? This is my favorite kind of advice when someone tells you, “Just do it perfectly and don’t mess up.” But timing is important and it’s our job to read our children. You likely have a bedtime in place already but re-evaluate if it’s the correct time.
    If you put your child down and they’re awake for the next 3 hours it might be too early. Or perhaps they might need a naptime adjustment. If you put them down and they’re fighting you or become overactive, they might be overtired and need to be put to bed sooner. Proper timing will help you set your child up for toddler bed success. 
  8. Ditch the blanket. Go with a sleep sack or sleeping bag instead if you want to avoid the hassle of getting that blanket “just right” every night. Or worse, when the blankets become a bit wonky or fall on the floor, they’re going to call you for help! If your child has a blanket as a comfort item that they love to sleep with, consider lying it flat on the pillowcase to avoid it falling out of bed. 
  9. Have the conviction that bedtime is bedtime. Do whatever they need (water, bathroom, another story, and so on) before the moment you leave their room. Teach them that they can only call out for emergencies such as needing the bathroom, feeling sick, or feeling scared*. (See note below.) 
  10. Hype that toddler bed like there’s nothing better in the world. Include them in the bed-picking process. Go to a store and have them try a few beds, even if you won’t buy those exact ones, just to make the experience something more. Build the bed together or surprise them with it. Choose bedding that they will love. Add some stuffed animals. Put a table next to the bed with a lamp. Whatever you do, make them feel like this bed is something special and great. 

*A note on telling your child that they can call you if they are scared. I didn’t want to do this at first because I thought every time they wanted a visit they might just use that “scared emergency” as an excuse. Although that has happened on occasion, I want my children to know they can call for me if they feel scared at night. I don’t encourage them to get up and come wake me but they can give a shout and I’ll come. You can tell pretty quickly once you see their face if there is real fear or if it’s an excuse. Regardless, try and treat both instances with grace and belief. If the fear is fake, comfort them quickly and leave again!

Pro Tip: Save money by not getting a bedrail but rolling up a blanket long way or a pillow and tucking it underneath the fitted sheet!

Toddler Bed Transition

The Method

Step 1: Take the toddler bed away

Wait, what!? You just gave them this amazing bed! Well, that’s the point.

A toddler bed should be treated as a privilege, not a right. If your child gets out of bed (I would say more than once) then the consequence should be that they return to their old bed or sleep in a playpen for that particular nap or bedtime. 

I intentionally kept my children’s old beds in their room for a few weeks after moving them to their toddler beds. Whenever they got out of bed I returned them to their toddler bed and gave them another chance. If they then got up again, I put them back in their old bed. After three times of being sent back to their old beds (exactly three times each), they would not get out of bed. Ever. 

We can’t just threaten to put them back in their old bed ten times and never follow through. The follow-through in those first few days is crucial for success. Our lack of emotion is also crucial. When children get a rise out of us it subconsciously becomes a game for them so stay neutral. Our children will not believe us if we don’t follow through or if we give them too many chances. Better to stick with one chance and have them learn sooner than later.

If they prefer their old bed and aren’t excited about their upgrade no matter how much you hype it, make sure there is nothing desirable about that old bed. No special blankets, music, or stuffed animals. It needs to be a boring sleep zone and their new bed has to be the exotic dream bedtime destination. 

I find this a very logical teaching method because every new freedom (in this case the toddler bed) is a privilege that will show us how much we can trust our child. We want them to become trustworthy people and if we can’t trust them then they shouldn’t have the privilege. It’s never too early to talk with your child about the importance of building trust. 

Additionally, having your child get out of bed on their own is more than just frustrating to the parent it can be dangerous for them to be walking around with the parent unaware. 

I recommend doing this “back to your old bed” step at nap times and bedtimes in combination with this next step…

Step 2: Promise To Check-in

Give your child an incentive to stay in bed quietly. 
Tell them, “I’ll come back in 5 minutes if you’re quiet and stay in bed”
For this to be effective, you’ll need to follow through and keep the promise (as we always should). Receiving the reward of a quick visit from Mom or Dad will bring you one step closer to success.

The visits don’t have to be long, a simple kiss and “I love you”. Promise a check-in every 5 minutes until they are falling alsspe. If this teaches them to stay in bed then you can cut down to one visit a night and eventually none.

Additionally, keeping the door open a crack might help them remain patient and hopeful while they wait for you to come through on your promise. 

Last Resort: Become The Gate-Keeper

If your child refuses to stay in bed, we don’t want to give them unending opportunities to leave their room. They need to learn that bedtime means staying in their bed in their room until it’s time to wake up. 

When you put your child to bed either in their toddler bed or, consequentially, their old bed, stay close where they can’t see you but know you’re there. Assure them, “I am right outside the door if you need me.” and settle in with a good book until you know they are in bed for the night. The comfort of knowing you are there should help them remain in bed. Add a 5-minute check-in and they should adjust to meet your expectations when it comes to bedtime quickly. After a few nights, this can turn into “I am right in the living room if you need me.” 

This alternative step can give your child the additional comfort they might need to help them become comfortable in their new environment. We don’t need to pull off the bandaid when it comes to transitioning to a toddler bed. Gentle steps can work even faster. 

If your child proceeds to get up out of bed while you’re waiting outside, don’t allow them to leave the room. Simply return them to bed with no lectures, no emotion, and minimal talking in general. This is not the time for one last song or story. Those things were done during the bedtime routine. Help them back into bed gently and return to your post outside the door.

This is not long term! Do this for a week and then move on to a further post but monitor what they are doing and make a visit or two.

Side Note: I have tried taking away their stuffed animal or whatever “bonus” thing they have in bed. This has literally never worked for me. Instead of taking something away to encourage their cooperation, keep the object as a reward for quietly staying in bed. Try saying, “When you stay in bed quietly for 10 minutes, I will come in and give you your special blanket.” instead of, “If you get up again, you lost the special blanket!”

Additional Help

It doesn’t work for every child but putting them to bed with a story from the Toniebox, playing music, or having a colorful night light can help a child relax enough to stay in bed and fall asleep. 

You can also have a clock light that tells them when they can finally get out of bed!

There are different clocks you can purchase that will help your child develop the patience they need to stay in bed: 

Toddler Bed Transition

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