Solving sleep problems - Moving from cot to bed

Making the transition to a big kid bed can be a difficult for young children who feel safe and secure in their familiar cot. How can you make sure this milestone goes smoothly?


Ideally, aim to keep your toddler in a cot for as long as possible, though generally by the age of three, most children have moved to a bed.

You may need to do this even earlier, if your child is tall, for example, or you need the cot for a younger sibling. A sure sign that a child needs to make the change is when they persist in trying to escape from the cot - or are successful!

Here, sleep expert Mandy Gurney looks at the common scenario of a toddler who revels in her new freedom and comes into her parents' room during the night.

Q Our 19-month-old daughter still sleeps in a cot, but we need it for her new baby brother who is growing out of his Moses basket. She still wakes up a few times at night, and one of us has to go in and comfort her. I'm worried that without the cot sides to contain her, she'll get out of her new bed and come into our room, disturbing her baby brother. How can I make sure she stays put?

A Your daughter is on the young side for such a move, so to keep her in a big girl's bed, you’ll have to give her the incentive to want to stay there. If you give in and take her into your bed every time she wakes up, the waking is likely to continue – after all, snuggling up with mum and dad is the ultimate reward for her night-time excursions. At the same time, she may develop inappropriate sleep associations and lose the ability to self-settle alone during the night.

Gradual retreat

This is a method of gradually distancing yourself from your daughter  until she no longer needs your presence to fall asleep at bedtime. It should teach her how to return to sleep independently during the night, plus it will minimise crying, which is less likely to disturb her baby brother - and you. 

After her usual bath and bedtime story routine, tuck her into bed with whatever cuddly toys she sleeps with, and stroke her arm or shoulder as she settles.

Stop stroking and gently pat her to sleep. After a couple of minutes of steady patting, start to pat her intermittently, with gradually increasing intervals between contact.

Place a hand very lightly on her, rest it there for a couple of minutes, then remove your hand and quietly shush her as she drifts off.

This is where you start to move your chair further away from her bed. Quietly move it two feet away and sit for a couple of minutes, then move it to the middle of the room for a couple more minutes. Finally, move to beside the door. Once you’re in this spot, sit for 10 minutes to make sure she's sleeping deeply. If you think she is, move your chair outside the door and give it another couple of minutes if you feel it’s necessary.

This method is time-consuming and can be exhausting, but you'll need to sit with your daughter and repeat this procedure every time she wakes in the night until she has gone back to sleep again. You can customise this technique to suit you better – for example, you might want to sit by the bed on your chair, or lean against the wall until you’re sure she is asleep. Depending on how well she’s coping, repeat each single step for three nights only and keep any interaction with her to a minimum.

Gradual retreat normally takes around three or four weeks to complete. It’s likely to be challenging and frustrating for the first few nights, but eventually your daughter will learn to settle herself and you shouldn’t be hearing the pitter patter of tiny feet late at night.

Now read a Dad's story about how his own toddler made the transition from cot to bed - all by himself!

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