Just this week I talked with a mom whose son is about to turn 1 year old. He is tall for his age, already walking, and has started grabbing and even shaking the crib railings while waiting to be lifted out of the crib. She wondered if she would need to transfer him to a toddler bed as soon as he began trying to climb out. I could hear the panic in her voice!
Almost every parent dreads the day that their toddler starts to climb out of their crib. But you need not fear it if you know what to do! Keep calm and read on for my tips on how to prevent crib climbing and stop it once it starts.
Climbing is a normal part of development
Climbing is a developmental milestone just like crawling or walking. If your older baby or toddler is trying to climb out of her crib, chances are she is also climbing on other furniture during the day. And if you have experienced other milestones, you know that your child may practice her new skills when she is supposed to be sleeping. Unlike other milestones, though, climbing is a skill that can cause more serious disruptions to her (and your) sleep. That’s because your child may leave her sleep space. And depending on your response, crib climbing can quickly become a habit or way of getting your attention.
When does crib climbing typically begin?
The age varies from child to child. Toddlers may start trying to climb between 15 and 18 months of age, while some master this skill as early as 12 months. Another common age for crib-climbing is around the 2 to 2 ½ year mark, as evidenced by the high number of transitions to a bed at this age.
Is climbing out of the crib a sign that my child needs a bed?
A lot of parents assume that crib climbing is a sign that their toddler needs a bed, wants freedom, or “hates” the crib. In fact, the opposite is usually true: Children under 3 years of age sleep best in their crib. The crib is a secure, cozy environment for them. Taking this security away too soon can feel very frightening to a young child.
Moving your child to a regular bed before she is ready is almost always asking for trouble. That’s because most children under the age of 3 simply do not have the self-control required to stay in bed. They don’t understand consequences yet. In short – try to hold on to that crib for as long as possible!
Preventing Crib Climbing
Your child’s safety is top priority. This includes making sure your child’s sleeping environment is as safe as possible. Sadly, there are articles and products promoting unsafe practices to prevent crib climbing. Never use crib tents (these have been recalled due to safety hazards) or modify the crib in any way to prevent your child from climbing out.
While lowering the crib mattress to its lowest setting is a good idea, do not remove the crib springs to lower the mattress to the floor. Your child could get stuck in the gap between the mattress and the crib. Removing the springs also makes the crib unsteady, resulting in a high risk of tipping over and trapping your child. Your child’s crib should be on a cushioned surface such as a rug or carpet. This will help prevent injuries should she make it all the way out of her crib.
If your child has fallen out of the crib or if the strategies in this article fail to prevent repeat crib climbing, you may need to transition to a big kid bed. However, in many cases these tips and strategies can stop crib climbing and delay the transition to a bed until your child is a little bit older.
Make sure the room is dark and boring
It’s a lot easier and more tempting for your child to climb out if: 1) She can see what she is doing; 2) There are toys to play with. To help prevent crib climbing, your child’s room should be conducive for sleep. Translation: Keep the room super dark and BORING.
Remove anything that can be distracting for your child during nap time and after bedtime. Try to limit the number of toys in the bedroom and put them out of sight before starting your child’s pre-nap or bedtime routine.
A dark room is always a great idea for helping your child sleep better. Use blackout shades on windows and patch up any gaps or holes where sunlight peeks in. You shouldn’t be able to see your hand in front of your face. Yes, the room should be that dark. That will also make it less likely that your little one will venture into the “unknown” area beyond the boundaries of her crib.
Leverage is anything that your child could use to “hoist” themselves or reach the top of the railing. If your crib has a bumper in place, remove the bumper. You should also adjust the mattress to the lowest possible setting in the crib. A blanket or stuffed animal may provide comfort to your child, but these items can also be used during a potential crib escape. If your crib has higher railings on one side, make sure that is the side facing outward. Position the crib so that the back and one side are against the wall. Finally, move furniture away from the crib such as tables or dressers (these could also be used as leverage by a clever toddler!)
Dress to prevent climbing
A couple of simple clothing tricks can make it more challenging for your little gymnast to climb. If you aren’t using one already, a sleep sack can be a great deterrent. Sleep sacks limit your child’s range of motion, and their soft material can prevent your child from getting a good “grip” on the crib railing. If your child has figured out how to work a zipper, you can turn the sleep sack inside out and put in on backwards. You can also try dressing your child in jeans for sleep – these are usually a bit more restrictive than regular pants.
Fix underlying sleep problems
While crib climbing can be a normal sign of development, in some cases it’s due to underlying sleep problems. Did you know that an overtired toddler is more likely to be adventurous? Really. If your child is short on sleep, she may develop a second wind. This will cause her to fight sleep, which means she will come up with all kinds of activities to do in her crib! Make sure your child is on an appropriate schedule so that she will focus on sleep when in her crib. My articles on early bedtimes and biological nap schedules can help you get started on an age-appropriate sleep schedule.
What to do if your child climbs out
Ok, you’ve done all the right things…and yet your child is still climbing. Time to step in! You have two options here: 1) Catch them in the act or 2) Silent return. The strategy you use really depends on your preference. Remember that 100% consistency is key with any approach you use.
Catch them in the act
The first option is to “catch” your child in the act of climbing. This is a good strategy if your child only tries to climb out of the crib at nap time or right after bedtime. Camp outside your child’s room and watch for signs that she is attempting to climb out (you’ll need a video monitor for this). Wait until you see her actively attempting to climb. Quickly go into the room, firmly tell her “NO,” and leave the room again. Keep this totally business-like: Do not talk, sing, touch or make eye contact with your child. Some children are so startled at getting “caught” that it takes just one firm “NO” for them to learn the lesson. However, to be sure, keep monitoring for a few days.
The other option is to wait until your child is out of the crib. This may be your “default” option if it’s the middle of the night and your child has surprised you! Enter the room, firmly tell her “NO,” put her back into her crib, and then leave. If your 2-year-old has somehow managed to leave both her crib and her room (surprise!), you will do what’s called a “silent return.” Walk your child back to her bedroom and place her back in the crib without interacting. You may need to do this several times before she gets the message.
As with catching them in the act, remember that the less you interact with your child the better. Even little things like saying another “good night” can be tremendously stimulating.
Keep calm and be…a statue
A proper mindset is important when you are trying to stop unwanted behavior such as crib climbing. The key to success is to remain calm and remember that your child takes their cues from you, their favorite person! I always encourage parents to be “statue-like” if they must go into their child’s room in the middle of the night. If you get angry or frustrated, that can reinforce the bad behavior because your child is still getting attention.
If you are 100% consistent in your approach and don’t over-engage, your child will eventually tire of climbing and the behavior will stop. When you remove the audience, the show stops.
Key Take-Away: Crib Climbing is NOT a Sign of Needing a Big Kid Bed!
Crib climbing is a normal part of development, and it is not a sign that you need to transition your child to a bed. With a consistent approach, you can help prevent crib climbing. Make sure your child’s room is dark and boring and remove anything your child could use to hoist herself over the crib railing. Dress your child in a sleep sack and/or blue jeans for sleep.
If your child does attempt to climb out of the crib, you will need to step in and firmly tell her “No” as many times as it takes. Avoid making it a game by limiting interaction and avoid becoming angry or showing emotion if you need to return your child to the crib. Fix underlying sleep issues so that your child is ready to actually sleep in the crib.
Did you find this article helpful? Don’t forget to share it with a friend who is dreading the day that their child starts climbing out of the crib.