Parents often try to keep the crib as long as possible to avoid the problem of their toddler/preschooler leaving the bed again and again at bedtime, but eventually they all need to take the plunge and get a big kid bed. How do you get a kid to stay in a bed?
Daycares do it
They stay there… how???
I suspect they are following what the older kids in the class are doing and they are never left alone. That makes it easier on many levels. Parents don’t have that luxury at home when transitioning to the big kid bed.
When’s the right time?
Many parents are tempted to move their toddler to a bed before the child is really ready. Many experts advise continuing the crib until around 3 years of age.
Remember that the crib also is a place of security, so sleep problems can develop if kids are transitioned too soon.
Many kids that leave the crib before they can understand rules (around age 3) have a hard time staying in the bed.
Some kids are able to climb out of the crib, so parents think it’s safer to move to a bed. This is one solution, but you can also work on ways to keep your toddler in the crib.
Make sure the space is safe
Before you let kids sleep in a bed that they can easily get in and out of, make sure the room is safe.
This is a great time to check the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Change batteries when you change your clocks.
Furniture should be secured to walls so climbing kids won’t pull them down.
Don’t allow window cords to be reachable by kids. Too many kids get hurt from cords and window coverings.
Don’t put beds near windows.
Keep all medications and poisons out of your child’s room. This includes diaper rash cream and other “non-medicine” hazards.
If you have a bunk bed, be sure kids under 6 years of age don’t sleep on the top bunk. If your little ones won’t follow the rules, you should unbunk the beds.
Make sure kids can’t get out of their room without you hearing them. They could be at risk falling down the stairs or simply get into trouble helping themselves to junk food or extra tv time.
For more safety tips, check out Charlie’s House.
Parents can get the child excited about leaving the security of the crib by talking about the bed before it is used.
Have kids help pick out sheets or a pillow for the bed.
Remind them during the day how big they are when they ___ (fill in the blank with “use a spoon,” “pick up a toy,” etc). Warning: This can backfire if they really are afraid of the bed and they do want to not be big, so they stop all the “big kid” behaviors.
If kids are afraid of their new bed, lay together to read books at nap and bed time.
If you still have the crib available, ask if they want to sleep in the bed or the crib. Simply having the choice might empower them to want to stay in the bed.
Feel free to leave a light or night light on in the hall (or even in the room if they prefer). Eventually they won’t need it, but it can really help if they want it!
Go through a routine of checking the closet (then closing the closet door), checking under the bed, and picking a favorite toy to be there while your child sleeps.
Use a comfort item. It’s amazing how much the power of suggestion that a stuffed toy will stay with them works!
Let them know you will check on them soon… and do, but wait a little longer each night until they are asleep when you check.
If your child has fears related to sleep, check out The Most Common Reasons Why Kids are Afraid to Sleep from AT Parenting’s Child Therapist & Author, Natasha Daniels.
For kids who are prone to falling out of bed, decide what works best for that child.
Some parents put the mattress on the floor instead of on a bed frame, so if they roll off it’s no big deal.
Many parents use bed rails that keep kids in the bed. Unfortunately if they roll hard enough, they can get trapped between the mattress and bed rail. I know this from experience! My son would do that and it would FREAK him out. He usually went to sleep without much fuss, but after he would get stuck in the rails he was too scared to sleep. We finally just put the bed against one wall and moved everything away from the other side of the bed except a nice layer of pillows and blankets. When he fell out of bed (yes, most nights…) he landed on the pillow pile and kept sleeping. Problem solved!
Pick a reasonable bedtime
Account for all the time it will take to do all the stall tactics when picking the bedtime.
If sleep time needs to be by 7:30, and you know they will resist brushing teeth, need to potty a 2nd time, get a drink, check the closet and under the bed, and read 3 books… get started in plenty of time to do all of that and still have them tucked in for the last time before 7:30.
Ironically as kids get more tired, they get more wired, so DO NOT allow this process to run too late! They will hit a 2nd wind and be up far too long. We all know what kind of day tomorrow will be if they are up too late tonight… and it isn’t pretty! Then they are overly tired for the routine the next night, which can lead to an earlier 2nd wind and more troubles!
One trick I’ve learned that works well for older toddlers and preschoolers is the card trick.
They start each night with 3 cards.
Every time they leave their bed for another hug, a drink, to potty, etc, they surrender a card to you.
Once all 3 cards are gone, they can’t leave the bed any more.
If they have cards left over in the morning, they get a sticker for each card.
They can earn up to 3 stickers (or make it special to get an extra sticker if they have all 3 cards!)
When they reach a set number of stickers they earn a prize.
You can use cards from a regular deck, or you can make it even more fun by having your child make his own cards.
I also suggest making a simple sticker reward chart, keeping in mind how difficult you think it will be to earn stickers and set a realistic goal for all the needed stickers to be earned within a week.
If they don’t earn the prize fast enough at the beginning they might lose interest (but it needs to be enough time that they earn it). You can make it more difficult over time, as their bedtime routine gets better.
For ideas of reward charts, check out this fantastic free site!
Prizes shouldn’t break the bank.
You can find trinket toys inexpensively or even pick an “event” as a prize. Maybe your child has been wanting to go to a new park. Maybe they want to have an extra book read at bedtime.
The most important thing is that the child will want to earn the prize.
Playing the game
Go over the rules of the cards and stickers during the day several times so they know the rules before you start the system.
At bedtime minimize the talking and just let them figure it out when you ask for cards or refuse to let them have a 4th resistance tactic.
Remember that each day is new, so they start with 3 cards and you can talk up how much you know they can keep them all!
Praise all the good choices.
If they struggle with it, find positives to praise… “You kept your cards a little longer last night. I can tell you’re working on keeping them all night!”
When kids leave their bed
If kids end up in your bed in the middle of the night and you don’t want them there, you must firmly but without much discussion bring them back to their room.
Too much snuggling, talking, or other interactions will only reinforce them coming to you again.
Night after night they get to spend more time with you– that’s what they see every time you give them attention when you need to limit the interaction.
Attempt to get them to walk themselves, but if they refuse, carry them with outstretched arms facing away from you to decrease body contact.
If you don’t mind them in your bed, be sure you’re ready for a long term commitment to a family bed. Once the habit’s started it will be harder to break until the child wants to sleep independently.
Sleep deprivation makes parents do things they never thought they would… you just want to get sleep.
Yes, I’m one of those parents who succumbed to being tired and let a little one stay in my bed. I realized I was kicked and punched often throughout the night by my lovely little angel who was not a great bedfellow. She affected my quality of sleep for quite awhile. She wasn’t sleeping well either. We all needed to have our own space. Her nightly visits didn’t stop until we made a firm decision to stop the behavior.
Weaning from a family bed
When we decided we simply couldn’t do the family bed anymore, we tried several methods to get our daughter back to her room. Many of these are discussed by Dr. Craig Canapari’s At Long Last: Sleep Training Tools For the Exhausted Parent.
The thing that finally worked was a slow wean.
We made a bed on the floor of our bedroom and let her sleep there. We slowly moved that bed further from our bed, then into the hall, and finally into her room. Eventually she even made it to her own bed.
If problems continue
If all else fails, talk to your child’s doctor about sleep problems.
Some sleep problems are due to real medical conditions and these should be evaluated.
If sleep problems continue, loss of sleep can affect growth, learning, behavior, and more… don’t let it get to that point!