We called it “the gulag.” With baby No. 2 on the way, the crib in our son, Rowan’s, room had been replaced by a single mattress on the floor, beneath a bare light bulb that we’d never gotten around to covering. A baby gate at the door, installed to prevent midnight strolls, enhanced the austere effect. But although the decor aesthetic was more prison chic than Pottery Barn, the setup let Rowan enjoy his big-boy bed safely, while my husband and I slumbered undisturbed by late-night thuds or an uninvited pint-sized bed crasher. You may be contemplating similar measures if your tot has already vaulted out of her crib or if you have another bambino due soon. If so, consider these tips to make parting from the crib a peaceful process.
Tip No. 1 Time it right
If your child is ready for nighttime potty training, has already escaped the crib once or seems big (or curious) enough to make the leap soon, it’s time to make the switch. Otherwise, you may want to wait until your toddler is at least two and a half or your new baby is three to four months old. This means your toddler is old enough to understand the big-bed rules and less likely to regress in response to the new baby, says Dana Obleman, a sleep consultant and owner of Sleep Sense in Vancouver.
2 Get the right gear
We’re talking electric-socket covers, childproof window latches, window-blind cord tie-down fasteners and more to keep your night prowler out of harm’s way. (Read “Is your child safe?” on Health Canada’s website, hc-sc.gc.ca.) A wall-fastened gate at the top of the stairs is a must, but you may want to consider one for your child’s room too. A gate can provide a “crib-like” environment that reinforces your expectations about bedtime, says Dr. Shelly K. Weiss, a pediatric neurologist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and author of Better Sleep for Your Baby & Child (Robert Rose). Installing one reassured Lionel Bebbington’s son, Graydon, now 4, who was initially “freaked out” by his newfound ability to get out of bed. “It made him feel a bit more secure and allowed us to leave his door open,” says the Toronto father of two. “To this day, Graydon asks us to put the gate up at his door when we kiss him goodnight.”
3 Buy the right bed
Many parents swear by a toddler bed, but a full mattress on the floor can work as well, as long as it’s less than two feet off the ground. If necessary and if your child is older than two years, securely fasten portable bed rails that meet American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) International Standards. “When Devon first went to a big-girl bed, we opted for a toddler bed with side rails, making it that much harder for her to roll out of bed at night,” says Steve Whate, a father of two in Rockwood, Ont. “We still put pillows on the ground for the first little while. Pathetic, I know!” Encourage ownership of the new bed: Let your little one choose new bedding and help her move her favourite dolls and stuffed animals into their new digs.
4 Stick with the right routine
With no crib rails to separate you, you may be forced to lay down for hours with a suddenly clingy toddler or to accommodate unexpected visitors in your own bed. (Hello, foot in the head. Make that multiple kicks if there’s a spotlight-hogging new baby in the picture.) Bebbington can relate. “From a baby who only required a goodnight kiss on the cheek, [the new bed meant] we suddenly had an anxious toddler who needed us there until he fell asleep,” he says. “This lasted about a month or more.” Some may outright reject the bed; for these kids, you could try naps in the big bed for starters. (Obleman prefers a clean break, however.)
For the best long-term results, Dr. Weiss recommends a consistent bedtime (say 7 or 8 p.m.), a short and quiet pre-bed routine, and then leaving your child while she’s still awake. Lying down with her may actually encourage nighttime waking, when what you want to do is teach her to fall asleep on her own and sleep continuously for 10 to 12 hours. (Night waking at this stage is usually a habit, not a necessity. If you’re concerned about excessive anxiety, nightmares or breathing difficulties at night, talk to your family doc.) Handle unwanted nighttime visits by returning your toddler to bed without speaking or making eye contact. “That way he’s getting no positive or negative reinforcement from you, and the game soon becomes very boring,” says Obleman. Some toddlers take even fuller advantage, she adds. “I had a client whose two-year-old would get up in the middle of the night and turn on the TV!” A gate or closed door is necessary to keep these explorers safe. No worries: prison chic is so mod!
Lisa Murphy is a Toronto writer who plans to offset second child, Maggie’s, gulag-style mattress on the floor with a girly Tord Boontje light.