When to put a toddler in a bed: the five signs that your kid is ready, by the sleep experts

When to put a toddler in a bed is a question posed by many parents

When to put a toddler in a bed illustrated by toddler climbing out of the cot
(Image credit: Getty Images / Future)

Knowing when to put a toddler in a bed can feel tricky, and perhaps daunting for some parents, especially if sleep has been an issue and there are concerns about how the change will affect nighttimes.

Knowing your child is safe and secure asleep in a cot is very comforting so it’s natural to worry when the time comes for the cot bed to be replaced. You might have visions of your toddler getting out and wandering around the house at night, falling down the stairs - trust us when we say you are not alone with these fears. Or you might be worried about them refusing to stay in the bed which could lead to frustrating bedtimes, disrupted sleep for the whole family and you wondering how on earth you now get this baby to sleep.

Parenting specialist Kirsty Ketley tells us how most children move into a bed by the time they are three. Obviously, every child is different and some families may need to move a child earlier if a new baby is coming along who needs the cot. Luckily there’s a vast selection of beds. You can choose from floor beds, single beds, or even bunk beds. Choosing the right bed together can help make the transition fun and exciting for your child, even if you’re feeling a bit apprehensive.

We spoke to sleep experts to find out which signs you need to look for before making the decision. 

Headshot of parenting expert Kirsty Ketley
Kirsty Ketley

Kirsty is a qualified early years practitioner and parenting consultant with a wealth of knowledge and experience from over 22 years of working with families and children from birth to the teenage years. Kirsty uses her vast experience as a professional to consult in all areas of parenting. Kirsty is mum to Ella, 9, and Leo, 5.

 When to put a toddler in a bed - The 5 signs 

As with all developmental phases, your toddler might be ready for a big bed at a completely different time from your friends’ children. Child development specialist Fiona Star-Stone, author of Wide Awake Baby Club, says signs that your child is ready for the transition include climbing out of their cot, not settling as well as they used to, or getting upset at bedtime.

1. They've become more active in the cot

If you’ve noticed a change in your child’s sleeping pattern or they seem unsettled at night or during their naps, it could be a sign that they’ve outgrown their cot. Once your child can walk and talk, their cot may start to be seen as more of a place to play than to sleep. They might start shouting at you from it if they can’t climb out by themselves, or they might enjoy jumping up and down - instead of lying down.

These are all signs it’s time for the cot to be retired and a new bed to move into its place. Fiona tells us that a new bed can still bring disruption but this is usually short-lived if you keep your routine and give lots of reassurance. “If you feel frustrated about constant bedtime escapes, remind yourself it’s all new and gently walking them back to bed reminding them ‘it’s bedtime’ will set a reminder that nothing is changing at bedtime other than the bed,” she says.

When to put a toddler in a bed illustrated by Woman smiling at camera
Fiona Star-Stone

Fi is a qualified parenting expert with 30 years working with children and families. Her qualifications include a Degree in Childhood and Youth studies, an NNEB in Nursery nursing, and a Diploma in Childhood studies.

2. They try to climb out of their cot

It can be a real shock when your baby starts trying to climb out of their cot. They may not even be able to walk yet but if they can pull themselves up to standing, they might also be able to start lifting their own body weight.

Most cots and cot beds have a number of different levels the mattress can be lowered to as your child grows. If you’ve reached the bottom level and you feel nervous about your toddler still being able to climb out, then it’s probably time for you to look at either taking one side of the bed off - or swapping to a bigger bed. 

Sarah Patel, sleep expert and founder of Teach to Sleep, says: “If they don't seem developmentally ready for a toddler bed, a floor bed can be a great option.” And author Zoe Ayre agrees - she tells us how a floor bed was a great solution for her family when her baby wasn’t happy in her cot. Zoe, who wrote the children’s book I Will Always Help You To Sleep, says: “I introduced a king-size bed with the legs cut off like a floor bed. We did this at around 18 months. Best decision ever. Once I put the king-size bed in her room she loved having her own room and space, and it meant I could still easily transfer her asleep.”

Image of woman holding a cup and smiling at camera
Sarah Patel

Sarah is a certified sleep consultant for babies and young children, she also has a PGCE in Primary Education, a BSC in Cognitive Science, and an MA in Education. Sarah is passionate about empowering and supporting parents to get more sleep without leaving little ones to cry themselves to sleep. She believes that there are much stronger, more nurturing ways to teach our children to learn to fall asleep feeling safe and secure. 

3. They have actually climbed out of their cot

Hearing a thud in the middle of the night is the stuff of nightmares for most parents and it’s a clear sign that it’s time to switch things up in your child’s bedroom. While injuries from climbing out of a cot are thankfully rare, climbing out is not something you want to happen regularly. Taking the side off is a great start, and you can use a bed guard to stop them from falling onto the floor. 

But if your child is too big for the cot bed, or seems restless and unhappy sleeping in it then it’s time for the exciting next stage. Mum Kylie-Ann says: “Ours climbed out so we had to move him to a big bed. He was probably 18 months or so, but he loved the new bed, with added railing to stop him rolling out!”

4. They’re getting too tall for a cot to be safe anymore

If your child is running out of space in their cot then it’s likely to be uncomfortable for them which can disrupt their sleep. It can also be dangerous. The general recommendation is that once the safety rail is lower than ¾ of your baby’s height, it’s time to move to a big bed. As your child grows, there are other bedroom hazards that you need to be aware of which could cause injuries, such as pictures or shelves above the bed or curtains or blinds close by. It’s also important to make sure there isn’t any adjacent furniture that they could climb onto. 

Lifting a big child in and out of a cot can also be hazardous for parents because it can cause back or shoulder pain. If your child needs feeding or comforting during the night, it’s much easier to pick them up from a big bed or sit next to it rather than bend to lift them out. This is something author Zoe found with her daughter: “I struggled to transfer her once I’d got her to sleep and it was so difficult to bend over the cot that I couldn’t make it work.” This is another sign the whole family is ready for a bed upgrade.

5. They ask for a 'big bed'

Sarah Patel says if you’re planning to move your child to a big bed “try to hold off as long as you can because the older they are the more you can prepare them for the change and the more likely that they will be emotionally ready”. 

For some families, it might be necessary to move an older child to a big bed to make space for a new arrival. If this is the case, Fiona recommends parents work on making sure their child doesn't feel pushed out, "make the move as far from the new baby arriving as possible, so either in the earlier months of pregnancy or waiting until the new baby is several months old. This way your toddler won’t feel like they’re being evicted to make way.”

But if there is no rush, sleep experts and parents say it’s best to wait until your child wants to move to a 'big bed'. If your child is showing no signs of wanting to climb out and is sleeping well in their current cot bed, leave them where they are.

As we mentioned above, once they do ask to move to a big bed, try to involve them in the process by letting them choose their bedding a comforter, and a night light. Sarah also recommends spending time in the bedroom “playing and listening to stories or using it as a space where they can play or explore while you do some jobs around them so that they build up experiences of feeling safe and happy in their sleep space”. 

When to move a toddler to a bed when co-sleeping

If you’ve been co-sleeping with your child and want to move them to a bed in their own room then it’s advisable to spend some time preparing your child for the move. Talk to them about what is happening and involve them in choosing the bed linen and decoration, if that’s part of the plan. Fiona Star-Stone recommends putting your child in their new bed just for day naps to help ease them in gently. And she says: “On the first few periods of sleep, bring their blankets and cot cuddles into their new bed to make it a familiar, safe, space.”

Other challenges to be ready for

  • Getting out of bed regularly
  • It's 'too dark'
  • Separation anxiety

Once your child is in their new bed you might face a few challenges, for example they may not want to stay in it, or they might roll out in the night. Kirsty tells us: “It's normal for children to keep getting out of bed at first, but usually the novelty wears off and they stop. You may need to sit with them at first to help them go off to sleep, and then gradually move yourself away.”

Bed guards or rails are really easy to attach to beds and can give you peace of mind that your child won’t fall out and hurt themselves - or wake themselves and you up. Kirsty also suggests getting a night light to help them go back to sleep if they wake in the night. “Sometimes, not having a light is the reason for children getting out of bed,” she says. 

It’s natural for your child’s sleep patterns to change as they grow. Toddlers go through some huge developmental changes at this age, such as learning to talk, potty train and make friends at preschool. This can all impact the quality of their sleep but the key thing to remember is to be consistent, maintain your routine and be patient. 

There are lots of sleep experts on Instagram who can help with tips and advice such as Hattie Frank @notanotherpeep, Kirsty Ketley @kirstykparentingspecialist and parent coach Heidi Skudder who runs the @heidi.positivelyparenthood account.

Trying to get a child to fall asleep and stay asleep can feel like trying to push water up a hill. You're not alone, and it does get better, we promise. In the meantime try our articles on sleep regression ages, the best baby sleep books, and even take a glance at the best baby sleep aides - tried and tested by parents as these can really help if you're also trying to get younger siblings to sleep more than 45-minute stints.  

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Kat Storr
Freelance Writer

Kat has been a digital journalist for over 15 years after starting her career at Sky News where she covered everything from terror attacks to royal babies and celebrity deaths. She has been working freelance for the last five years and regularly contributes to UK publications including Stylist, ES Best, Woman&Home, Metro and more.