It’s the Murphy’s Law of parenting: Just when you get your toddler sleeping a full 12 hours at night with no wake-ups, they decide to throw a brand new wrench into your routine.
That is, by literally throwing themselves out of their crib, narrowly escaping a concussion, and surprising you at your bedside at 3 o’clock in the morning.
This new “milestone” (a term that, honestly, often feels like a polite way to say “torturous learning experience”) might feel like the end of the world — or at least the end of all the things you just started enjoying again.
You know, like having a single hour to yourself at night and getting 6 consecutive hours of sleep.
Thankfully, there are some things you can do to encourage your kiddo to stay put. And most importantly, there are ways to keep them safe until it’s time to swap their crib for a bed.
Here’s how to reclaim some semblance of your cozy post-bedtime routine.
Remember when we used that awful “milestone” word? We’re gonna break it out again.
Climbing out of the crib is a milestone for your toddler, and it’s a pretty loaded one: It marks the beginning of some serious physical and developmental changes.
Here’s what those changes involve:
- Physical. Your child may not have had the coordination before to succeed at climbing out. To do it, they have to hoist one leg over the railing and balance a bit while they lift over their other leg. Then — in theory — they need to figure out how to lower themselves down without wiping out. Once you get past how annoying it is, it’s actually kind of impressive.
- Developmental. Let us guess: Your toddler wants to put on their own shoes, pick out their own clothes, decide what they eat for lunch, and make the call about when it’s time to leave the park. When your kid hits the 18- to 24-month mark, they begin something called an independent streak. This is a good thing in the long run. They’re figuring out who they are, what they want, and how to get it, now. But it’s also an absolute nightmare in the short term — they aren’t rational, or reasonable, or interested in self-preservation!
The combination of these two is basically what causes toddlers to break out of their cribs in search of exactly what they’ve been missing every night after you put them to bed. And the fact that you want them to stay in their bed is even more motivation for them to bust out.
So… it’s the end of the world, right? Not necessarily. Here are some tips for keeping your child in their crib at night.
Lower the mattress
When you first brought your baby home from the hospital, you probably had your crib mattress set at the highest position, so you could easily reach in and scoop them up.
But if you’ve forgotten to lower the mattress as your child has gotten bigger, you might be able to buy yourself some time by moving it down to the lowest setting now. This might make the top of the railing just high enough that your child can’t get their leg over it.
You can also remove any stuffed animals, blankets, or bedding that might be giving your child a boost. (Thanks a lot, Benjamin Bunny— we thought you were on our side.)
Another way to safely use your child’s crib against them is to turn it around so the shorter, front-facing side is flush with a wall. Obviously this won’t work if your crib has even sides all around, but many have a back that’s much taller than the front.
Hack their pj’s
You might have thought you were done with sleep sacks a long time ago, but it’s time to buy the biggest toddler size possible and zip up your little escape artist again.
An age-appropriate sleep sack is a safe way to restrict your toddler’s movements — remember when you used one to prevent your baby from startling themselves awake in the middle of the night?
If your child’s legs are all wrapped up in a sack, it’ll be harder for them to get the leverage needed to climb over the crib railing. If you have a kid that’s adept at zippers, look for a sleep sack with a zipper hide.
You can’t always walk into a big box store and grab a 2T sleep sack off the shelf, so you may need to look online for one that’ll accommodate your child’s height and weight. But they do exist, and they’re worth it.
Use a visual cue
This one has a 50/50 shot of working when you:
- have an older toddler who can safely climb out of their crib
- don’t want them to climb out, over and over again (all night long)
In other words, if your kid’s acrobatics aren’t dangerous but just totally annoying, you can get one of those “sleep to wake” toddler clocks that tell your child when it’s OK to get up.
More often, this type of clock is used for toddler sleep training. For an older toddler who can climb safely out of their crib without getting hurt, however, it could let them know when they’re allowed to actually go through with it.
Catch them in the act
So, we’re not really buying this one as a legit strategy because we’ve never known a toddler who listened when their parents told them not to do something. But if you actually have one of these “magical unicorn” children who follows your directions, this could work!
Once your child has escaped the confines of their sleep prison, you’ve already missed the chance to tell them no. If you can catch them in the act of climbing out, however, you might be able to give them a calm but firm no and position them back inside the crib.
Don’t overreact, because then your child might do it again just for attention. A simple “No, you need to stay in your crib” is appropriate.
Fair warning: Even if you have the type of toddler this might work on, you’ll have to repeat the process a lot before they get the message. It’s not a one-time disciplinary tactic. If your child has a more easygoing personality, it might be worth sticking it out for a few nights until they learn the expected behavior.
Whatever approach you take, you should still assume your child can and will climb out of their crib again and plan accordingly. Even if lowering the mattress or putting on a sleep sack works for 6 months, it won’t work forever — and you may not see the next jailbreak coming.
If you haven’t already, toddlerproof the room. This is different from babyproofing, because toddlers can accomplish way more than babies when left unsupervised in a room.
To do this:
- Tether all furniture to the walls.
- Secure window treatments.
- Cover up electrical sockets.
- Make sure the room is free of long drapes and cords for blinds, which are both choking or strangulation hazards.
- Remove or lock away literally anything your child could injure or poison themselves with (yes, even that tub of diaper cream — it kind of looks like cream cheese!).
You should also clear a perimeter around your child’s crib.
You don’t have to put down pillows and blankets; it’s not the worst idea, but it may or may not help much. More important is making sure there isn’t anything else they could climb onto from the crib or anything sharp they could hit their head on if they take a tumble over the railing.
One of the biggest mistakes parents make is running out to buy a toddler bed the nanosecond their child climbs out of the crib for the first time.
You open up a whole new can of worms when you give your child free access to roam alllllllll over their bedroom — and, perhaps, your whole house — at night. (Pro tip: A baby gate at your child’s door is a safe way to keep them in their own room.)
Aside from the obvious safety issues, this is often one of the first true battles parents face with their toddler around sleep.
You think your kid climbing out of their crib from time to time is bad? Just wait until the moment you tuck them into their toddler bed, kiss them goodnight, leave the room, and…
You turn around 5 seconds later to find them smiling at you. Over and over and over again, until it’s midnight and you’re both crying (you from frustration, them from exhaustion).
It’s a hard habit to break, it takes a lot of patience, and it’s much easier to negotiate boundaries around bedtime behavior when a child is at least 3 years old.
In the meantime, it’s not safe to have an irrational toddler getting into mischief in the middle of the night while everyone else sleeps. Don’t make the switch until you absolutely have to.
OK, so when should you cave and move your kid to a toddler bed? Here are the signs that it’s time:
- You’ve tried every trick in the book and they’re still regularly climbing out, with little to no effort.
- You have another pressing reason — like potty training — for wanting them to have more freedom.
- You’re having another baby soon and you need the crib, or you think there might be jealousy issues if you wait too long.
- They clearly can’t fit into the crib anymore. This is less common now that cribs and toddler beds are often the same size (using the same mattresses, too). But if you bought a smaller or compact-size crib, it could be time to give your kid more room.
Plenty of kids climb out of their cribs on the daily and never get hurt, but stuff happens. If your child hits their head during an escape attempt, don’t panic — but be sure to take the following steps:
- Stop any bleeding with gentle pressure, then clean and bandage the wound, if there is one.
- Offer them some cuddles and another comforting object or activity to calm them down. You won’t be able to assess your child if they’re crying hysterically.
- Apply ice to any swelling or redness. It’s OK if your child has a pretty big bump on their head; that’s normal.
- Keep an eye on your child for the next several hours. Call your doctor if you notice any worrying symptoms, like if your child complains of a headache, loses consciousness or seems excessively sleepy, vomits, won’t stop crying, or is simply acting strange or “off.”
Most childhood boo-boos, including bumps on the head, aren’t a major cause for alarm. But trust your instincts and call your doctor if you aren’t sure whether the symptoms are serious (or if you just need reassurance!).
If your child climbs out of their crib once, don’t panic: It might not happen again, and even if it does, it’s not a sign that you must immediately switch to a regular bed.
There are several strategies you can try to keep them in the crib for as long as possible. In the meantime, make sure their bedroom is 100 percent toddlerproof to keep them safe during future jailbreaks.