The Crib-to-Bed Passage

by Christina Frank

Making the switch from the cozy confines of a crib to a "big-kid bed" is one of those toddler rites of passage — another farewell to babyhood and a leap toward independence.

While some children eagerly snuggle in between their new sheets without a backward glance, for others the change can be difficult. Here are ways to determine when the time is right and how to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Switching for Safety. If your child can climb out of his crib — or if the rail is at the middle of his chest when the mattress is at its lowest setting — it's a good idea to move him to a bed.

"Parents have no idea how common it is for pediatricians to see fractures in toddlers who have fallen out of their cribs by hoisting themselves over the rail," says Paula Elbirt, MD, a pediatrician and founder of the website. Another reason to make the move is if he's obviously too big to sleep comfortably in a crib.

Don't rush. There's no real reason aside from safety concerns to push your child out of her crib — even if all her friends have made the switch or if you're expecting a baby.

"I tell parents it's not such a terrible thing to have two cribs, if it's necessary and affordable," says Dr. Elbirt. "For many children, their cribs are a huge source of emotional comfort. Ideally, the child should be showing signs of independence in other areas — like toilet training, dressing and feeding himself — before switching to the bigger bed."

What if your child asks to upgrade her sleeping digs? "Parents should assess whether they feel comfortable leaving their child alone in a room," says Jodi Mindell, PhD, a St. Joseph's University psychology professor and author of Sleeping Through the Night (Collins, $14.95). "Toddlers can potentially get into serious trouble if they become prone to night wandering."

Sturdy gates placed on the door of the child's room, as well as at the top and bottom of staircases, go a long way toward preventing accidents. "And of course your home should be child-proof anyway," says Dr. Elbirt.

The switch is on. Once you're ready to make the move, keep the new bed safe either by putting the mattress (crib or twin) directly on the floor, or placing one side of a taller bed against a wall and using a side rail on the open edge.

Whether you switch to a toddler bed or a twin is purely a matter of personal preference. A toddler bed is an extra expense unless your crib is the type with one side that comes off. "You won't have to make two switches if you go directly to a twin," says Dr. Elbirt. "Twin beds can be made to feel cozy by putting them in a corner and using a side rail."

Avoid times of transition. Make the switch at least two or three months before or after a new baby arrives so your toddler can adjust without feeling displaced.

Hold off entirely if toilet training has just begun, the family has just moved or another significant change is taking place. But "safety first," says Dr. Elbirt. Make the change anyway if your child has reached the height limit or is able to swing a leg over the side or climb out of his crib.

Make the new bed feel familiar. There's no need to reject all the old crib accoutrements. "Let your child bring her old blankets and stuffed animals into the new bed," says Dr. Mindell. "You can even prop up the mirror and the busy box if she still enjoys them." And keep her bedtime routine the same.

If she's reluctant to commit to the new bed, keep the crib in the room once the new bed has been set up, if possible, and make the switch gradually, with only naps being taken in the big bed at first. Above all, maintain a cheerful attitude.

"The more positive you are about the new bed, and the more involved your child is in choosing a frame or the bedding, the easier it will go," says Dr. Mindell.

Christina Frank is a freelance writer.