Child Caring

Bridging the gap between crib and bed

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Columnist / March 9, 2000

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Moving your toddler from the crib to a bed is like opening Pandora's box: You can be in for a real surprise.

"It's not unusual to go from having a great sleeper to chaos almost overnight," says pediatrician Richard Ferber, the nation's preeminent children's sleep specialist. "The child who never even thought of getting out [of the crib] is now popping out of bed all the time."

The best age for the move is between 3 and 4, says Ferber. Unfortunately, few parents wait that long, and even though there may be a practical reason to do it, if a child is too young, a move only creates new problems on top of the old ones.

"It's unrealistic to expect a 2-year-old to have the self-control to stay in a bed. It's not part of her developmental equipment yet," says psychologist Jodi A. Mindell, author of "Sleeping Through the Night" (HarperPerennial). Her daughter is 33 months old "and I don't see a big bed in her future any time soon," she says.

The most common reason parents move a toddler is to free the crib for a new baby. "That fuels the insecurity a child already feels at having a new sibling, making her particularly needy," says Mindell.

She says parents can buy up to three more months in the crib for the toddler by finding a makeshift or alternative bed for the baby. If that's not possible, move a toddler out of the crib at least six weeks before the baby arrives. Whatever you do, she says, tell him, "You're such a big boy, you need a big boy bed!" not "We need the crib for the baby."

One transition at a time

Moving a child at about the same time she's toilet training is almost always a bad idea, even though it makes sense for her to have easier access to the bathroom at night.

"Having both transitions at once robs a child of control at a time when independence and control are developmentally what they are pushing for," says pediatrician Shari Nethersole of Children's Hospital. "He's bound to resist."

Her advice is to complete one transition before tackling the other; logistically, it makes sense if the move to the bed comes first.

One way to gauge whether a toddler has the necessary control is to try leaving him alone in a room for a few minutes during playtime. "Is he a kid who gets into trouble instantly," asks Mindell, "who cries because you've left or follows you out?" If the answer is yes, he's not ready.

Sally Cronin of Medfield wonders if she moved her daughter too soon. When Madison was 18 months and climbed out of her crib, Cronin panicked: "I didn't think she was safe." She and husband Tom took the crib down immediately.

In the near-year that has passed since then, Madison has slept the night in her bed only once, the night before this interview. Not that she was a great sleeper before that; she was often sick and cried a lot, so Sally or Tom would bring her to their bed. But her increased mobility has made matters much worse. That her parents don't consistently return her to her bed doesn't help, either, but Cronin wonders, too, if Madison was just too young.

The day after she stayed in her bed for the first night she was so proud of herself, she told her mom, "I woke up and didn't come in your room!"

Cronin found that interesting. "She knows that's what we want," she says. "I think she just couldn't do it before."

Exploring alternatives

The problem for parents like Cronin is often that they don't realize they have alternatives, says Nethersole. For instance, she recommends lowering the rails, putting a hefty layer of cushions on the floor, and teaching a toddler to climb safely. That's what our pediatrician recommended when my son was 18 months and hurled himself out of the crib headfirst. It was almost as if Eli just wanted to be empowered to climb, rather than to get out of the crib: He never dived again and never climbed down at night (during the day was a different story), and we didn't move him to a bed for close to a year.

The reason to delay the move as long as possible, of course, is safety. "They can get into a lot of trouble wandering the house alone at night," says Nethersole.

Delaying also enables us to maintain control. Once in a bed, even a youngster who was previously an excellent sleeper can have difficulty settling down for the night. With the newfound freedom, he's more aware of and enticed by activity in the rest of the house. "They pop in and out of bed and you can't enforce anything," says Ferber, whose book, "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems" (Simon and Shuster), is the bible on the subject. Ferber is director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital.

His solution is a gate, either at the top of the stairs or on the bedroom door. Many parents resist, saying it feels too zoo-like, but Ferber says it actually feeds into a youngster's developmental need. Here's why:

What begins as a rule - "It's your job to stay in bed" - typically escalates into threats and punishment - "If you don't stay in bed, no TV tomorrow!" - because parents get so frustrated at lack of compliance. The problem, as Cronin suggests, is that a child under 3 is not capable of complying.

"They may cognitively grasp that you'll be angry, but the open door beckons and they can't control the impulse," says Ferber. At the same time, however, "they don't enjoy the chaos when parents are angry and yelling," he says. Indeed, if anything, it makes them feel more insecure and unsafe, pushing them to act out even more in an effort to get you to set a limit that makes them feel safe again.

The gate is that limit.

"It is the parent's job to offer the control the child can't provide himself," says Ferber. He says a gate can turn bad nights into good ones within two nights.

When beds don't measure up

For some children, it's not the newfound access to the rest of the house that's the problem. They simply don't like the bed.

Katie Faulkner of Newton was 2 when she began to outgrow her crib. Her parents wisely waited six more months to move her, until she was bumping into the sides while she slept. Even so, she rarely sleeps the night in the bed.

"She had a comfort level with the crib that hasn't been matched by the bed," says her dad, Mark.

Nethersole says that's not unusual. "The crib is familiar and cozy. Kids feel snuggled there - safe," she says.

Guardrails can provide that security for some children, but they may not provide as much protection as parents think. Cronin says Madison moved around so much on a twin bed she was afraid she'd roll off, even with the rails. She bought a slightly smaller junior bed that was lower to the floor.

One trick to ease transition is to keep the crib up after you move the bed in so a child chooses where she wants to sleep. As long as you have the space for both and can tolerate the back and forth - naps in the bed, nights in the crib, etc. - this is a respectful way to give a child control, says Mindell.

For a child who is truly miserable with the bed, for whom bedtime is a nightly struggle, and who has gone from being a good sleeper to a bad one, Mindell would bring the crib back.

"The trick is in the spin you put on it," she says. Not "I guess you're not a big girl" or "You can't handle this," but: "Oh look! Your crib missed you, too! It came back!"

Hopefully, of course, it won't come to that. When we don't rush children and set limits for them, says Mindell, the transition to a bed can be as smooth as, well, silk sheets.

How parents can smooth the way

Place the bed in the same position in the room as the crib so a child's perspective on the room doesn't change. A child isn't too old for a crib until 4.

A consistent routine that includes reading makes bedtime easier. Keep the routine the same when you move him.

If possible, involve a child in choosing the bed or sheets.

Talk about the attributes of a bed. "This bed is special; it's just for you. It's so big and comfortable and it can still be cozy: Look how much your stuffed animals like it!"

Some children never pop in and out of bed during the night. Be careful not to plant the idea that they can. Not: "The rule is you can't get in and out of bed," but: "When you go to bed, call us if you need us, just like before."

Shutting a child behind a closed door for the night is not safe.

Some guardrails are not safe because they leave a large space between the bottom rung and the mattress. A child's arm, leg, or head could get caught.

It can take a month for a child to get used to the bed.

Tell a child who doesn't like a gate, "Let's try it without the gate and see if you need this help or not."

If a child is having sleep problems, don't assume it's because she hates the crib, and don't make this a reason to move her. Try instead to figure out what makes sleep an issue and work on that directly. For instance, is there an underlying tension in the family? Does she have difficulty with other separations? Do you use the crib as a discipline technique so that she has negative associations with it?

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