Unsung Milestones

The Crib To Big Kid Bed Transition Nearly Killed Me

I was completely unprepared for the nightly power struggle.

Little girl, in a dated room, leaping and jumping on an old fashioned bed. She is illuminated by sun...
Catherine Falls Commercial/Moment/Getty Images

One Sunday night in January, my husband put our 2.5-year-old daughter to bed in her crib, then went about his evening. Minutes later, she appeared next to him in our bedroom down the hall. “I climbed out!” she proclaimed, beaming with pride. This had never happened before, and we took it to mean that we could no longer put off the transition from crib to bed, something we’d joked about delaying until teenagehood. The very next evening, we made the switch. I wasn’t prepared.

Most toddlers move from crib to bed sometime between 18 months and age 3, and the majority of toddlers sleep in a bed by their third birthday. That wide range means that parents everywhere are making their own judgment calls, trying to reconcile their gut feelings with all the “signs” baby sleep experts say signal a need to transition.

One of the biggest signs, which I learned about (checks watch) three months too late, is that it’s highly advisable to wait until age 3 to switch to a big kid bed. “Young toddlers are developing their independence and willfulness, however, they’re not skilled at reasoning,” says Chrissy Lawlyer, a baby sleep consultant. “Transitioning to a big kid bed when your toddler lacks reasoning skills causes intense and fruitless power struggles.” Plus, research shows that two-year-olds lack impulse control, which makes it hard for them to remain in bed while they’re trying to fall asleep or if they wake up in the night.

We didn’t know any of that. We realized our mistake quickly.

Our daughter Audrey had been a champion sleeper ever since we sleep-trained her at five months. But once we made the crib-to-bed transition, she began waking up crying several times a night; bedtime became a struggle that often stretched on for over an hour; she appeared in our room before sunrise, ready to start the day.

Much has been written about how to handle the sleep hiccups that come with switching your toddler from crib to bed, so I won’t rehash all that here. But besides funny takes, not much has been said about how this transition impacts the parental experience — and that impact, I’ve come to learn, cannot be overstated.

We’d been spoiled for two years with a child who happily stayed in her crib from 7 PM to 7 AM every night and for two solid hours at naptime. As every parent knows, these hours were gold: guaranteed windows where we’d be off duty, where we could be productive or relax or simply enjoy existence without the demands of another human.

Now, nothing is guaranteed. A huge lever of our parental control — those four walls of the crib — has been removed, and we’re left realizing that we have little else in leverage. Sure, healthy parenting isn’t about power (“Above all, we want to avoid getting into a power struggle with our toddlers,” says Lawler), but it sure is easier when you have the upper hand.

In those halcyon crib days, after Audrey had gone to bed, I’d curl up in the armchair in my nearby office and read while listening to her babble in bed until she drifted off. It was idyllic. Now when I curl up in that chair, it’s… less so. Every five minutes, her door creaks open with a new query or request: she needs to go potty; she needs her socks on; she needs to know why I’m upstairs and why Daddy is downstairs.

In these moments, I can feel my patience growing thin, the simmering irritation in my veins threatening to come to a full boil. Over and over, I do what the experts say: calmly, firmly, let her know that it’s bedtime and she needs to get back in bed. But after a while, I feel the desperation of my situation. I have zero control over when (or if!) my daughter sleeps; I’m returned to that feeling of dread that tinged the newborn months, the fear that I would never sleep again, that this was forever. In my most desperate moments, I sometimes resort to threats — taking away toys, bringing back the crib — and though they occasionally do the trick, it’s the type of strong-armed subterfuge I aspire to never use with my child.

The worst repercussion of our new sleep struggles is that it’s made me a less engaged parent during waking hours. Without my guaranteed hours of decompression, I find myself disassociating, racing through bedtime because if I get it done faster, then maybe I’ll get a moment to myself before my own bedtime. Mornings after particularly bad nights, I’ll wake up to her grinning face by my bedside at 6:15, and I’m filled with love, certainly, but also with resentment. During my only break from parenting, I was unconscious.

This transition has reminded me of something that parenthood teaches you many times over: raising a child requires sacrificing the things you really like for the thing you love most. On mornings or evenings when Audrey won’t stay in bed, I first think about what I'm going to lose. I can’t go downstairs and finish Inventing Anna; I can’t creep to my office for some peaceful, early morning writing. I can only gently direct her back to bed, again and again and again.

But then I remember that this, like newbornhood, is temporary. In the blink of an eye, she’ll be locking her bedroom door to keep me out, then that bedroom will be empty, and I’ll have an unending stretch of quiet nights and serene mornings. It’s a sappy thought, maybe, but it’s true. And it takes the sting out of the fact that I’ll never win this power struggle, the fact that, at this very moment, I must search our home for a stuffed unicorn that, I’ve just learned, my little girl cannot sleep without.

Kate Willsky is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in publications including The Cut, The Washington Post, SELF, VICE, Glamour, and Eater, among others. She lives in Northern California with her husband and daughter and fantasizes regularly about how she could get them all to move back to Brooklyn. You can read more of her work at katewillsky.com