Many parents live in fear of the big kid bed transition. Why take that crazy baby out of their cozy little jail so they can terrorize you with face slaps, eyelid pulls, and “mamamama” deep into your ear at all hours? But reconsider: A true, well-done big kid bed upgrade is all about positive sleep habits – and boundaries. And it’s completely within reach.
We spoke with Kira Ryan, a mom of three and co-founder of Dream Team, a Manhattan-based Sleep Consultation (she also co-wrote their book, The Dream Sleeper). “Children don’t want to want you,” Kira explains. “They want to feel independent.” Add in the fact that sleep is an enormous part of your little’s emotional and physical development, and it’s a no-brainer to use this transition as a chance to set good habits in motion. Here, she shares all the necessary tools to get the process RIGHT – or course correct, if needed.
Before You Start…
DO Aim to start the transition around 2.5.
Ultimately you know your child best, but 2.5 seems to be the ideal age, based on all the clients we’ve worked with. Before then, even with the most emotionally-intelligent child, it’s still sort of a crapshoot because they’re still pretty impulsive at that age.
DON’T time the switch to baby #2.
Unfortunately this is pretty common to try and get an older kid out of the crib so it’s ready for the new baby, but it’s truly not the best reason to move – and you don’t want her to feel kicked out. Buy a safe but cheap crib for the interim and then wait to do the switch at the right time. Which means…
DO wait until they’re in a good place during the day.
If your kid is listening to you during the day, that’s going to make it much easier for him to respond to your nighttime parenting. But if you say “put that hammer down!” and he starts pounding it on the TV, it’s highly unlikely he’s going to listen and oblige “stay in your bed!”
DON’T make too big of a deal over it.
Your little will take cues from you, so it’s important to be positive and consistent. But not too excited.
DO include him in the transition.
“You’re turning into such a big boy and we’re so proud of all the things you’re learning, so next week it’s time to move into a big boy bed.” Make it a reward for positive behavior and take him with you to pick out a bed or sheets.
DO start with pretend play.
Create a situation with dolls or action figures and a shoebox as the “big kid bed.” Pretend the doll is going to sleep in there, show him what you want to happen at night so he can see what you expect before he experiences it himself. Keep it light and don’t feel like you have to do this for hours!
DO be safe.
Do a thorough check of your child’s room for potentially dangerous pieces. If there’s a bookshelf that hasn’t been secured to the wall, get on it! And Kira recommends an inflatable bed-rail to go under the fitted sheet and keep her from falling down. You want her to feel safe – not worried about falling off.
Now once you actually START the process…
DON’T “ease in.”
It is definitely better to set rules and stick to them from the beginning. Your toddler will look to you to say what’s possible and what’s not, and if she suspects a crack in there, she will take the opportunity! Kira tells clients to be strong but kind.
DO have a script.
“This is what I would like to happen. We’re going to bed now, you’re going to stay in here all night, and mommy and daddy will come get you in the morning.” And when he walks into your room in the middle of the night anyway? “It’s time to go to bed, I’m going to walk you back to your room now.”
Toddlers LOVE attention, positive or negative. So don’t let him start any side conversations. Fewer words are better. Just say the same script over and over again – you should be as non-reactive and boring as possible.
DON’T be discouraged.
This middle-of-the-night interruption might happen 22 times. Or 100. But if you pay your dues in the first few nights, it will go a long way. In the morning after a rough night, try not to dwell on it, just say “Mommy is really tired. You’re supposed to stay in your bed – that’s what big girls do, that’s how you got a big girl bed.”
DO pay attention to what motivates your little.
It’s different for every kid – some want to be rewarded with stickers or toys, some want to please, some want special time together. Whatever it is – positive reinforcement is a lot better than punishment. Who doesn’t want to be recognized for good behavior? If you really want to sweeten the pot, come up with a “menu” of things that will motivate your little and post it so there’s a visual reminder. If you have any mom-guilt about “bribing” just put it on a shelf and forget about it – this is a very powerful tool in behavior modification.
DO set the right awake time.
Your toddler should get at least 11 hours of sleep, so count that off starting at bedtime and don’t let wake-up time happen any earlier.
DON’T shy away from props.
Like the OK to Wake clock – it keeps kids engaged in the rules. Or pick out a special lovey that’s only for the big-kid bed. It can’t follow him to yours. Let him pick out his own nightlight – anything to make the room feel safe and enjoyable.
DO “schedule” sleepovers in your bed.
If you want to, that is. But you should make it a special thing that everyone is looking forward to, not a kneejerk reaction that has to happen because you’re all so exhausted.
And if you’re already dealing with a tot who’s NOT into her big kid bed…
DO know that there’s help.
No, it’s not going to be a quick fix – there’s so much history leading up to this behavior. Before dealing with difficult nighttime behaviors, spend 2 weeks being hyper-vigilant about following through on what you say. You have to reestablish that you mean what you say so when you start to make changes about nighttime, they already have experience with you following through. And then try the tips discussed above for kids just starting the process.