When it comes to making the transition from a crib to a big kid bed, there are two questions that need to be answered. The first is WHEN, and the second is HOW.
Let’s start with WHEN.
If your little one is struggling to sleep through the night, my answer for you is “not now”.
First of all, there is no rush to move your child to a big kid bed. I’ve seen plenty of 3 year olds happily sleeping in a crib! I’ve also never heard a parent tell me “I wish we would have moved to a big kid bed earlier”.
There is a theory out there that suggests the longer a child is in a crib, the more attached they grow to it, and the harder the transition is to the big kid bed. I can assure you that this is wrong.
The second reason to wait is if you are planning to teach your child to sleep independently. There is going to be a period of adjustment as learning independent sleep is a very big change for a toddler. During this time, it’s going to be helpful and more comforting for your little one to have a bed that is already familiar. Her bedroom, her sheets, her lovie, her crib, everything that can stay the same should stay the same until she’s mastered the skills to fall asleep on her own.
I would highly recommend waiting until your child is already sleeping through the night (and ideally 2.5 - 3 years old) before transitioning to a big kid bed. A toddler who is well rested and able to fall asleep independently is far less likely to leave their room at night, which is the single biggest issue that parents run into when they move their little ones out of the crib.
Let’s say you have decided it’s the right time to switch. Let’s talk about HOW.
Set a date and talk about what is going to happen. Explain what will happen in detail (toddlers love detail!). “We’re going to move your crib out of your room because you are ready for a big kid bed! Your pillow and blanket and lovie will all get to sleep in your new bed with you. Would you like to see what your new bed will look like?”
Make sure they know when it will happen and always talk positively about the change.
#2 Involve Them
Let your child come with you to the store (or help you look online) as you pick out the new bed and bedding. Give her some ownership in the decision-making. Obviously you should only give her a choice if you are comfortable with both options. Maybe let her choose which pillow she wants or what color her sheets will be.
Side note about toddlers: As toddlers grow in their concept of the world around them, they are searching for their place in it. They begin to desire some control of their own circumstances. This is sometimes the reason they act out – they are tired of us making all the decisions for them. Start giving them control and the opportunity to make their own decisions whenever possible!
#3 No Unnecessary Changes
We’re making one HUGE change, so try to keep everything else the same.
Put the bed where the crib used to be
Don’t introduce new PJs on the same night
Keep the same lovie if she has one
Stick to your exact same routine and bedtime
#4 Keep it Low-Key
It’s a bit of a fine line here, but you will want to make sure there is not too much pressure placed on your child. Acknowledge the change and make sure your toddler knows you are proud of her, but try to do this without making it a huge deal. You don’t want her to feel any amount of stress or undue pressure layered on top of an already significant life change.
Now that you’ve done all the prep work that you can, you are ready for the big switch! Once you make the change, you will probably find yourself in one of three scenarios:
Scenario 1 - They adapt immediately to their new bed and they don’t test the rules whatsoever. In this case, celebrate heartily. You are among the lucky minority.
Scenario 2 - Your little one seems to adapt immediately but, after a week or two, she starts leaving her room, playing with toys, or calling for you to come back in several times a night.
Scenario 3 - Your toddler starts doing all of those things the very first night.
The solution to the latter two of these situations is the same.
Make sure your expectations are clear and offer a warning when your toddler demonstrates the unwanted behavior. Tell her what the consequence is going to be if she does it again, and then follow up on that consequence if and when she repeats it.
Chances are that you’ve already discovered a consequence that works on your toddler, and I strongly suggest you keep that it place. We don’t want anything to change except for the bed, so keep doing whatever you’ve been doing up until now in regards to managing behavior.
In case you haven’t discovered an effective consequence yet, I’ve got a few ideas for you. (Remember that it needs to be something they won’t enjoy.) A couple consequences that I find are very effective are taking the lovie away or closing the door all the way (each for a short period of time). For each repeat offence increase the length of time of the consequence.
And that’s all I’ve got for you! Remember to explain what’s happening, involve them in the process, don’t make any unnecessary changes, keep it light, set the expectations and enforce the rules. It’s not always going to be easy, but it is pretty straightforward.
Best of luck!