How to deal when your toddler keeps climbing out of his crib

Have you caught your toddler scaling the sides of his crib? Here’s when to expect this phase—and what to do next.

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Megan Barth’s daughter, Emery, was just 16 months old when she first scaled the bars of her crib and hopped down to the floor, all without injury.

“She climbed out with her sleep sack on. The only reason I noticed was I looked at the baby monitor camera at around six, when she normally wakes up, and she wasn’t in her crib. She was just quietly looking at some books in the corner,” recalls Barth. “I thought, I’m not ready for this.” 

Toddler climbing out of his crib
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Emery was definitely on the young side for mastering the crib escape. “Most kids are pretty good in their cribs until their second birthday,” says paediatrician Michael Dickinson, president of the Canadian Paediatric Society. “Somewhere between age two and three is when they often start being able to manoeuvre out.”

When kids start developing the motor skills to get themselves out of their cribs, they risk slipping and banging their heads on the floor or otherwise hurting themselves on the way down. That’s why Jennifer Garden, a registered occupational therapist and the founder of Vancouver sleep consultancy Sleepdreams, suggests moving the mattress to its lowest setting as soon as your kid is pulling himself to stand, to deter him from “vaulting” out. She also recommends putting a soft mat or rug next to the crib to help cushion a fall. Don’t forget that an escape-artist kid is also free to go where she pleases once she’s out—so if her room isn’t toddler-proofed or you haven’t been gating the top of the hallway stairs, now is the time.

Despite the risks, you don’t need to rush your kid into a bed the minute she puts one leg up to attempt a getaway. “Toddlers and preschoolers have no self-control, and bedtime is basically one huge process of FOMO [fear of missing out]. A physical boundary like a crib makes a lot of sense,” says Alexis Dubief, author and founder of the Precious Little Sleep website, book and sleep-support Facebook group. Many toddlers have a hard time staying in bed once they realize they are able to get out on their own, and the transition to a big-kid bed often comes with a drastic change in sleep quality that—sorry to say—could be even more pronounced if there is a new sibling on the way.

Both Dubief and Garden suggest using a properly sized sleep sack, which can make it harder for kids to climb out. You can also try doing it up backwards or getting the kind of sleep sack that buttons at the bottom.

If your crib has one side that’s higher than the other, turn the crib around so the lower side is against the wall. Barth tried this tactic first. “I was in my third trimester with my second child and really didn’t want to move her to a toddler bed just yet,” she explains. Having the higher side of the crib facing outward bested Emery for a while—she slept in her crib for another three months until she skilfully hoisted herself out of that set-up, too.

Jonelle Salmeier, a mom of two, did even more crib modifications after her daughter figured out how to take her own sleep sack off. “We took the spring mattress support off and put the mattress on the floor, which bought us another year.” Salmeier was able to keep her daughter in her crib past her third birthday.

While it’s certainly worth some effort to keep your wilful toddler confined to his crib until he’s closer to age three—and you’re better able to reason with him about staying in bed—stopping a committed jailbreaker can be a difficult task. “Toddlers are so fiercely independent and want to do what they want to do,” says Dickinson. If your tactics fail and your kid is hell-bent on coming out, then it’s time to transition to a bed. Garden suggests keeping the sleeping environment as consistent as possible to limit any sleep regression; for example, if you have a crib that converts into a toddler bed, use that before upgrading to a twin or queen.

Now that your kid will be able to get in and out of bed at will, make sure there are no cords that can be pulled on (they’re a strangulation risk) or lamps that can be knocked over, and secure furniture like bookcases and dressers to the wall. “If they’re climbing out of the crib, they’re going to climb on those, too,” says Garden. Some parents choose to leave the bedroom door open but install a baby gate to keep their toddlers from roaming the house, while others set up a video monitor to keep an eye on things.

Barth says that transitioning Emery to a toddler bed actually improved her sleeping habits, eventually. After one particularly frustrating nap, when she climbed out four times, Barth took the rails off the front of the crib. Now 23 months, Emery sleeps beautifully at naptime and at night, without the temptation of climbing. Says Barth: “We took the challenge away.”

Read more:
12 swoon-worthy baby cribs we love
6 tips for getting your baby to sleep in a crib during naptime

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