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Toddlers - moving from a cot to a bed

bed; cot; night; sleep; bunk; safety; safe;

Many parents put their babies and young children into a cot for sleep because this is what is normal in their culture, but there are two main advantages of cots. The child sleeps at a level which is comfortable for the parent to attend the child. The child is in a confined and safe place.

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Where young children sleep is often influenced by the culture in which they live. Some children sleep in a cot, others share their parents' bed, or share a bed with a brother or sister from a very early age.

Often young Australian children sleep in a cot until they are about 2 to 3 years old, or maybe even older, and parents need to make a decision about when to move their child into a bed.

The Raising Children Network has a fact sheet about moving from a cot to a bed

Also Red nose - saving little lives (formerly SIDS and Kids) brochure Cot to bed safety 

Why young children sleep in cots

Many parents put their babies and young children into a cot for sleep because this is what is normal in their culture, but there are two main advantages of cots.

  • The child sleeps at a level which is comfortable for the parent - attending to a baby is more comfortable when you do not have to bend down to reach the baby.
  • The child is in a confined and safe place. The child cannot leave the safe place and the cot provides protection from some risks - it keeps other young children away, and can keep pets away from the baby (although cats may still be able to get into the cot). The cot becomes an important place to the child – a space that is 'owned' by the child.

The cot should be a happy comforting place.

When to make the change

There are no 'rules' about when to move a child from a cot to a bed. One sign that your child might be ready for the change is when your child is able to climb out of or into the cot and it becomes a safety issue.

  • Try to pick a time when there is not much family stress.
    • For example, avoid making the change when you move from one house to another - children need some things to stay the same when a lot of other things are changing.
    • Also avoid making the change when a new baby comes into the family. It may seem like the new baby is taking something away from the child if the baby is put into the cot and the child moved to a bed at the same time. It might be a smoother change if the young child moves out of the cot several weeks before the new baby is born.
  • If the child is unwell, it might be best to wait until she is well again before moving from cot to bed.

What sort of bed?

Often the toddler will be moved into a bed of her own, but in some families the child will share a bed with other children in the family (this can be a very comforting thing for young children).

When a child is shifted into a bed, it is important to think about safety. As well as being able to jump off the bed (great fun…and a very normal child behaviour), children can roll out of bed while they are asleep.

  • Some parents choose to place the mattress onto the floor for a while, until they are confident that their child will not roll out of the bed. Some parents chose to leave the mattress on the floor, as there really is no need for a child to have the mattress raised off the floor on a bed frame.

If the child is to sleep on a raised bed, some ways to help the child stay safe include:

  • Placing the bed in a corner, so there are two sides where the child cannot roll off the bed
  • Having a rail along the sides and ends 
    • The rails need to be low enough to allow the child to safely climb into and out of the bed. 
    • Make sure there is no risk of the child's head, arms, legs or fingers getting trapped in the rails (see the topic Safe sleep for information about the safe gap sizes).
  • Placing something soft on the floor next to the bed.

Bunk beds are not safe for toddlers, even if the lower bed is the one on which they will sleep. All toddlers will want to climb onto the top bed during play, and most falls occur when the child is awake and playing. Generally, if you want to use bunk beds, it would be best to wait until the youngest child is around 9 years old.

Helping children make the change

Many young children are excited about this change as it is a sign of 'growing up'. But some children find the change stressful.

  • When you are getting ready to make the change from cot to bed, let your child know that this move will happen a couple of days beforehand (one or two days is probably quite enough, as young children have very little understanding of time).
  • It may help your child to feel some ownership of the new bed if she helps choose some of the bedding, such as a special pillowcase. 
    • Children do not need to have new, children's bedding. Parents may like being able to give this to their child, but their child will not notice if the bed or bedding is old or new. 
    • Some children like to have all of their old bedding on their new bed. It seems to help them feel that this new bed is still their special place.
  • If there is space in the room, you could set up the bed while still keeping the cot set up too, so your child can choose where to sleep for a few days (or longer if needed).
  • Follow your usual 'going to bed' rituals, such as bedtime stories, cuddles and kisses. 
  • If your child has a special toy or blanket, make sure that it is within reach on his new bed.
  • A night light may help her check where she is when she wakes during the night.
  • Even adults feel disorientated when they sleep in a different position in a room, so be prepared for your child to need some help from you to make it easier for him go back to sleep during the night.

If your child is not ready to make the change, there is no need to persist. Perhaps you could leave the new bed set up, while letting your child sleep in her cot. She will probably play on the bed during the day, and become ready for the change in her own time.

Possible problems

Children who sleep in a bed are able to get out of the bed whenever they want to.

  • You will need to make sure the room and house are safe during the night. A night light in the child's room, and a soft light in the passage outside her room, will help her move around safely. Locking the door so that she cannot get out of the room is likely to be very scary for her. You could try a 'safety gate' across the doorway, as long as it does not worry the child. Your child may be satisfied if she can see you or the rest of the house. 
  • Since she can get out of bed by herself, she may decide that she wants to come and sleep in your bed, with you. Remember that most parents like to sleep close to their partner, if they have one, so it can be a bit tough to expect a young child to sleep by herself. If you all get a good night's sleep this may not be a problem, but if it does interfere with your sleep, you might like to look at the topic Sleep – 3 years to 6 years for some ideas about how to manage this situation.
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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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