Sleep and children are kind of like oil and water. No matter how hard you try, they just don’t seem to go together. And just when you think you’ve mastered it, you encounter a new hurdle—like when to transition to a toddler bed.

Whether you’ve been co-sleeping or using a crib, there’s a point in every parent’s journey when their child is ready to graduate to a toddler bed—but when?

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • The ideal age for transitioning to a toddler bed
  • Strategies to make the transition gracefully
  • Plus, how to actually keep your kid in their toddler bed at night

When to Transition to a Toddler Bed

While there isn’t a clear-cut answer for when to transition to a toddler bed, there are a few factors that can help you decide.

Age

Some parents transition their babies as early as 18 months, but the average age tends to be around 3 or 3.5.

This tends to be a good age because your toddler is usually old enough to understand the purpose of a toddler bed—and the rules that come with a big boy or big girl bed. (Very young toddlers are more likely to get hurt if they wake up early and start exploring their room or the house unsupervised.)

Safety

Beyond age, safety is the most important factor for making the big switch. (Sometimes even more important than age!)

No matter how old your child is, you might consider switching to a toddler bed if:

  • Your toddler is climbing out of the crib
  • Your child is outgrowing his or her crib

Even if your child is only two years old, it may be safer to switch to a toddler bed if he or she is constantly climbing out of the crib. But don’t rush the process if your child is content and safe in their crib. Unless your child is a climber, consider keeping them in the crib as long as possible—until they outgrow it! My daughter slept in her crib until she was four years old.

Readiness

And, sometimes, kids tell you when they want to make the switch. If your child is raring to go, you might consider giving it a try. That excitement might be exactly what you need to make the transition work.

Necessity

And, of course, sometimes the transition to a toddler bed comes from a place of necessity:

  • Maybe you have another child coming along and need the crib,
  • Or you want to make the switch before another child comes to avoid dealing with a potentially difficult transition while you have a newborn,
  • Or your child is potty-trained and needs to be able to use the toilet more easily in the middle of the night

The Approach: Prep Your Child First

Rule No. 1 is to prep your child for the big change. Toddlers need more time to process change, so it’s best not to spring this transition on him or her when it’s bedtime and he’s already tired. Explain the big change long before it even happens. Here’s how to do it: 

  1. Hype it up. This starts with you: Be excited about the transition! Tell your child how excited you are for him or her, and do whatever you can to make it sound like a fun milestone.
  2. Read books about sleeping in toddler beds. Books can help your child understand what’s happening more clearly. There are tons of options on Amazon and at your local library, but my favorite is Big Bed for Giraffe.
  3. Accessorize. Let your child pick out his own sheets or a special blanket. When kids are involved, it makes them feel more in control of the situation.

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Then, Proceed Slowly

Bottom line: A smooth transition is a gradual transition.

  1. Start with naps. If possible, have your child take naps in the bed for the first few days to get used to it. Then, gradually introduce the toddler bed for nighttime.
  2. Keep the bedtime routine consistent. Toddlers are creatures of habit, and routine helps ease change. His normal sleep cues (such as his favorite lullaby or a kid-safe lavender blend in the diffuser) will facilitate the process.
  3. Keep familiar items close. This includes stuffed animals or other loveys.

Sounds Great, But How Do I Get My Toddler to Actually Stay in Bed??

Getting your child into the toddler bed is only half of the battle. The other half is getting your toddler to stay in the bed—and honestly, it’s the harder half.

Be prepared that your child most likely won’t stay in bed at first. It’s normal, and that’s okay. But this comes along with some important safety measures.

Tips for Success

Childproof

To keep your little wanderer safe, it’s essential to childproof if you’re transitioning to a toddler bed. Every room has different childproofing requirements, but here are a few of the basics:

  • Put up a bedrail. If you’re using a twin bed or if your toddler bed doesn’t have one included, consider a bedrail. This creates a more “cozy” feel and also prevents the child from rolling out of bed.
  • Anchor furniture. Make sure dressers and furniture are anchored. You can also anchor small nightstands too. Assume that if a toddler can climb it, it should be anchored.
  • Cover outlets. All outlets should be covered.
  • Hide and secure electrical cords. All electrical cords should be out of sight and secured.
  • Use a gate. Even if you shut the door at night, consider placing a baby gate in the doorway. A child safety gate ensures your toddler won’t go roaming around the house at night. Keeping your child contained to his or her bedroom at night is a big safety issue. If your child can climb over gates (or open them), you may need to close the door and put a doorknob cover on the inside knob.
  • Secure blinds. Blinds and their cords should be tied up and out of reach.

Create a cozy environment

Optimize the room for sleep by:

  1. Using a white noise machine. This will help keep your toddler calm and drown out distracting ambient noise.
  2. Darkening the room with blackout shades. A dark room helps signal nighttime, plus aids in melatonin production.
  3. Putting a little potty in the bedroom. Consider putting a little potty in the bedroom with an amber-colored night light in case your child has to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Stay with your child until they are fully asleep

This might be one of the most simple tricks, but it can help a lot during the early stages of this transition. Before you leave your child in his new bed, make sure he’s all the way asleep. Sing songs, read a few stories, or gently rub his back—whatever you need to do to help your little one drift off to sleep. If you leave your child while he’s still awake, you run the risk of him feeling excited about his new bed and exploring.

Consider a weighted blanket for children

A light weighted blanket made specifically for children can help kids feel more safe and secure in their new bed.

Serve a tart cherry yogurt drink after dinner

Tart cherry juice is a wonderful natural sleep aid, because it contains naturally-occurring melatonin. Simply add 2 ounces of tart cherry juice concentrate (the equivalent of two eight-ounce servings) to a raw yogurt drink each night before bed. This helped my son sleep 60-90 minutes longer every night!

Use toddler alarm clocks

You’ll want to decide if you want your child to come wake you when they are up or focus on ways to keep your child in bed. If you fall into the latter camp, many parents swear by the toddler alarm clocks. There are dozens of “okay to wake” alarm clocks that help teach your child when it’s okay to get out of bed. Some focus on colors, and some play fun sounds. These don’t work for all children, and many kids might see them as “toys,” so use these with discretion.

Put books on the bedside table

If you’re okay with having your child stay in their bed after they wake, put a few books or a relatively basic activity (like an Etch-a-sketch) on their bedside table. This will give them something quiet to do while time passes.

Add incentives

If necessary, you can also create incentives when your child stays in bed all night long. Incentives can be very helpful if you have a child that loves the newfound freedom to roam. Incentives can be simple, like a sticker chart. You could also make a little “treasure box” from a cardboard box and fill it with small toys.

Is Your Child Ready for the Big Transition?

If you’re moving your child for safety reasons, know that it may take some time, but the investment will be worth it. And, in some cases, if you’re not finding success, you may realize a co-sleeping or family bed arrangement works better for you and your child.

The bottom line is: Transitioning to a toddler bed is a big deal. But it’s just like many of the other transitions that you’ve been through with your child. Be prepared for a few rough nights. You will all get used to the new normal and eventually get back into a routine—no matter what that looks like for your family.

How About You?

Have you already made transition? What tips worked well for you? We’d love to hear about your experience!