I typically recommend keeping toddlers in the cot for as long as possible and don’t normally suggest making this transition until around two-and-a-half to three years of age. Developmentally then, your child has the mental reasoning necessary to understand words like “stay in your bed all night”. Cognitively, you want your young child to have some impulse control and that, when you issue an instruction to them, not only do they understand what you are saying, but they can also make an effort to comply.
Often I see parents making the move to the big bed significantly sooner than when this developmental skillset will emerge, and whilst many parents will find that this early transition is seamless, others will find that it only works because they are lying down and staying with their child at bedtime and also sleeping with them during the night either in their bed or indeed the family bed. If you are in the position that your young child is inclined to climb out of the cot and, in turn may injure him/herself; then rather than immediately trying a big bed before this recommended age range, often a learning exercise is required to teach your toddler necessary behavior for the cot, such as “no climbing” and by supervising and encouraging them while they learn.
Before making the big move from cot to bed, it is worth discussing your plans with your toddler and giving him or her a sense of ownership over their sleeping arrangements. It can sometimes be helpful to give them lots of small choices around their sleep such as where the bed should go, where they will keep their books and what duvet cover they would like. This transition may also coincide with your plans to toilet train your youngster, and you don’t want to overload them with lots of changes all in the one go. It makes sense to transition to the big bed first and then tackle the training, but you will know your own child best. It may also coincide with the arrival with a new brother or sister; again, you don’t want to speed this transition up with rumblings about the cot being required for another little person that may already be treading on your toddlers toes.
Get your small person invested in the new sleep plans - take them shopping to pick out the new bed and bed linen, and let them 'help' you organise the bedroom for the new bed.
It may be helpful to introduce a reward chart outlining some behaviour that you would like to see, for example “co-operates at bedtime”, “stays in bed until morning”. Using positive re-enforcement and praising, the behaviour that you would like to see more of can make this new arrangement easy. I sometimes would have parents make a little book with their child to show them in words and in pictures the new sleeping arrangements.
You will need to amend your existing bedtime routine and make sure that you are firm about the boundaries. Try not to fall into the trap of “one more story”; as these stalling techniques can often spiral out of control. Also, avoid agreeing to stay lying down with your child or holding hands at bedtime, unless you plan to co-sleep or room share.
I advise that parents have a structured bedtime routine that, with the exception of the wash-up/bath/teeth - should happen exclusively in the child’s bedroom so that they can have positive associations with sleep. I often use a lamp on a timer to indicate the start and the end of the routine that should happen before they climb into bed. Have a predictable sequence of events that happens within 20-30 minutes before sleep time. Enjoy this close, one-to-one time with your child, and indulge in lots of physical and eye contact and low key activity such as book reading, storytelling and also relaxing exercises.
At the start, if your toddler keeps getting out of the bed, calmly return him/her to the bed and explain that it is sleep time now. If your child is struggling to adjust to the bed, you may have made the change too soon. Don’t panic, just put them back in their cot and wait a little longer.
Lucy Wolfe CGSC. MAPSC, Paediatric Sleep Consultant (birth-6years) and mum of four. She helps families to establish healthy sleep with personlised plans, without leaving children to cry it out... www.sleepmatters.ie | firstname.lastname@example.org |