Don't Wake Mommy

7 Ways To Keep Your Toddler In Their Goddamn Crib Once They Start Climbing Out

Sleep tight, Houdini.

Written by Elizabeth Narins
Emma Chao/Courtesy Kyte Baby; Scary Mommy; Getty Images

As a writer who does her best work during naps and bedtime, I felt totally f*cked the first time my kid climbed out of his crib. Proud as hell, he showed me exactly how he did it — clever boy swung a leg over the railing, climbed onto an adjacent chair, and practically skipped with pride as he left his room and proceeded to scare the living daylights out of me.

I swore I wouldn't be that mom whose life revolves around naps and bedtime. Spoiler: I'm exactly that mom. If you are, too, you don't need The National Sleep Foundation's Sleep Awareness Week (March 12-18) to remind you how deeply important it is for kids (and adults, too, obviously) to rest their weary heads — even those little Houdinis who hack the system by breaking out of their beds.

Crib escapes aren't just annoying and exhausting; they're a matter of both sanity (yours) and safety (theirs), says Joan Becker Friedman, RN, certified child sleep consultant at Milwaukee, Wisconsin's Pea Pod Sleep Consultants. Think about it: At any moment, your kid could fall out of their crib or even down the stairs if your babyproofing isn't exactly fortified (ahem). And don't get me started on anxiety. After a tiny human that you recently tucked in Don't-Wake-Daddy's you even once, you never sleep quite as soundly.

So why, oh why, is this happening to me and maybe you? "As babies become toddlers, there's a huge leap in their cognitive development and language skills," says Becker. "Along with these areas of growth, they acquire many new gross motor skills they want to practice during naptime or sleep time." While this can happen as early as 11 months (surprise!), it's most common between months 15 and 30, she says, adding that some kids never attempt an escape at all (angels!).

Luckily, you're not doomed the first time your kid makes a break for it. "Don't assume it's time to switch to a toddler bed," Becker says. After all, this isn't a transition you want to rush — and in fact, the longer you wait, the easier it will be, she adds. Speed things along, and you could be facing even bigger bedtime problems. "Your two-year-old toddler may listen to you when you explain the rules associated with a toddler or big bed, but most kids under the age of three don't have the self-control or impulse control to stay in bed," Becker explains. "They might sleep well for a week or two, but as soon as they figure out they can get out of their bed, they'll come to visit you at all hours of the night. When you walk them back to their room, undoubtedly, they'll be back to visit again and again."

So, if a big kid bed isn't an option and your crib is no longer doing its one and only job — to safely contain your kid for sleep — what's a parent to do? Turns out, there are lots of things. But the first step, and it's not easy, is to babyproof the crap of your kid's bedroom, Becker says.

That means moving furniture away from your toddler's crib (so they can't climb onto it); making sure every piece is bolted to the wall (same deal); removing standing or bedside lamps that could be knocked over; locking windows; securing hanging cords from blinds or curtains; putting safety covers over all electrical outlets; installing baby gates that your child can't knock down or climb over; and putting sofa cushions around their crib — just in case!

Once you're certain your kid will be OK if they do make it out of their crib, zero in on preventing just that with these tips:

  1. Get low with that mattress. Lower the crib mattress according to the manufacturer's recommendations — just not to the floor, Becker warns, since this can be a safety hazard.
  2. Keep your toddler in their sleep sack. A sleep sack can make it much more challenging to straddle the crib and get out. If your child can easily unzip their sleep sack, turn it around so that the zipper is in the back.
  3. Punk your kid with "anti-climbing pajamas." Made by brands like Naughty Monkey and Little Grounders, these night suits have a stretchy piece of fabric that connects the legs to make it more challenging for a toddler to climb over a crib rail — all without impacting their ability to walk. (If you happen to have aced home ec, you can modify your toddler's PJs yourself, Becker notes.)
  4. Spin your crib right 'round. If the back of your toddler's crib has a panel that's taller than the front, turning it around so that the lower side is against the wall and the high side faces into the room can create additional height that's enough of a visual deterrent to prevent climbing, Becker says. This can also work for cribs with equal sides but higher ends — just flip the crib so the high end faces out into the room.
  5. Lay down the law. If you've tried the above tactics and your kiddo is still attempting to escape, camp outside their room or use your monitor's talkback function to police your kid. Each and every time you catch them starting to straddle the crib, give them a firm, "NO, it's sleep time." Just be warned that it could take a few tries (or nights) for them to get the message.
  6. No matter what your mom group tells you, avoid crib tents and poorly-timed transitions. Tents can entrap or strangle, according to Consumer Products Safety Commission. And you don't want to make the swap to a big kid bed just to free up the crib for a new sibling, while potty training, in the midst of a move, or during any other transition, like starting daycare, Becker warns. While it might seem smart to pull every Band-Aid off all at once, the approach can overwhelm your toddler and frankly, stress the whole family out.
  7. Accept when it’s time to transition out of a crib. Just like you can't stop your kid from growing up — I'm not crying, you're crying! — you can't stop them from outgrowing their baby crib, eventually. Most toddlers will transition between the ages of 2.5 and 3.5, Becker says, although she recommends no earlier than 3, when kids are more receptive to modifying their behaviors based on rules paired with rewards. And once your kiddo is 35 inches tall (or the crib railing is lower than their chest, whichever comes first), it's time to make the move to a big kid bed to avoid the risk of injury from falling, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Or, if you've tried all of the tactics above and you haven't been successful in preventing your toddler from climbing out, it could indeed be time to surrender your kid's crib, no matter their age. After all, anything is better than the sound of a tenacious toddler hitting the floor in a botched escape.

In the meantime, put the tips above to work and know that every tired mom is rooting for you!

Editor’s Note: As always, if you have any doubts about the safety of your decision to deter your baby from climbing out of their crib — or to transition to a big kid bed — consult your pediatrician for guidance. Although an expert was consulted for this piece, there’s no substitute for a doctor who knows your child.