Q&A: toddler climbing out of crib

Ally, who's been in the middle of sleep battles for, well, ever, writes:

"As you know, we've been working on getting Jamie, who is 17 months, back to his crib full-time. Last night was one of those where I'd lay him down drowsy and almost asleep and he'd pop up, "HI!" the minute his head hit the pillow. I decided to let him blow off some steam and sat in the glider, pretending to sleep, while he cruised around his crib, turning his music box on full blast and playing with his aquarium. Then, quiet, which is never good, so I opened my eyes, and there he was, hanging on for dear life, his entire body balanced on the crib rail. He's been throwing one leg up trying to figure out how to escape for a little while now, and I'll be damned but Houdini somehow figured out how to get both of them up there.

So now what do we do? I figure our options are to a) hope like hell that he doesn't do it again, and to not let him hang out in his crib anymore, or b) ditch the crib for either a toddler bed or a twin mattress on the floor. While we've been working on moving him back to his crib the biggest challenge has been getting him to actually fall asleep there, and I've wondered if a bed would be a better option at this point because he will fall asleep if I'm just laying next to him. I'm not worried about him getting in and out because he hops off our pillow-top, king-sized mattress just fine by himself.

But a bed for a 17-month-old could open up a whole 'nother kettle of fish - keeping him in it, for the most part - and I don't know if it's a challenge I'm prepared to take on. Of course, keeping his limbs intact and attached to his body are the top priority, so if that's what it takes, that's what we'll do.

Help!"

The first thing I thought when I read this email was "She has a pillow-top king-sized mattress. I'm so jealous." But then I moved on to focus on the problem, which is a real classic of the toddler years--kid who climbs out of the crib. I think a bunch of us have had brushes with it in one form or another. One night when El Chico was around the same age as Jamie is now, I heard him calling for me from his room. It took me a minute or two to get out of bed, and as I walked through the kitchen to his room I ran into him walking toward me! That was the only time for us. But I've heard of kids climbing out and falling and breaking limbs, and I knew a girl who climbed out and fractured her skull(!). (She was completely fine, although she had a really nasty bruise around one eye for a few weeks.)

When my son climbed out that time we figured out that it was because his dresser was too close to his crib. Once we moved the dresser we knew he couldn't get out again, and we got another few months out of the crib. But if there's nothing helping a kid climb out that can be easily removed, you can't just hope the kid will stay in the crib. You have to move the child to a bed of some sort.

I just read Ally's most recent entry on her blog, and it seems she's implementing the exact strategy I would have suggested to her. (Should I be proud or nervous that she's taking my advice before I knew I was going to give it? Am I obsolete?) She's buying a twin-sized mattress and putting it on the floor in his room.

Before I discovered that she'd figured it out herself, I was going to tell Ally that there are two ways  you could go with this problem. You could try to force your kid to stay in the crib by putting one of those lids on top (they're really supposed to keep cats out of the crib, aren't they?), or you could put the kid in a bed (toddler or twin, or even adult-sized).

If you try to force the kid to stay in the crib you might win on this one issue for awhile, but in the long run you're setting up a dynamic of control that you're not going to win. You may win it when your kid's 18 months or 2 years or 5 or 10 or even 15, but at some point your kid is going to get the best of you, because you set up a win-lose situation. Is it worth it? Not to me, but I really don't like to use a control model of parenting anyway. I think it's my job to help my kids learn to be independent, and the best way to do that is to help them feel secure and to teach them skills. Setting up a fight doesn't do either of those things. I'd rather lose a little sleep right now than end up with serious rebellion later on.

If you go with a bed, you're trusting that you're going to be able to help your child solve his or her current sleep problem and stay in that bed, even if it doesn't happen right away. It's going to be more work for you at the beginning, but it's going to release tension in your relationship with your kid instead of creating it, and it will help your kid be able to sleep more soundly because there won't be stress associated with bedtime.

Ally has identified that Jamie falls asleep with no problem with her lying next to him. So the twin mattress is the perfect solution to bedtime because she can just get up and leave when he falls asleep. As he gets older he'll get better at going to sleep by himself, and she won't be stuck lying down with him forever.

The middle of the night is a crapshoot. He could wake up and start roaming around. (If it's in his own room it's not a big deal since it's all childproof, but Ally might want to consider gating off any other areas of the house so he can't wander freely around.) He could wake up and start screaming for Mama (or Daddy, if you get lucky). He could walk into their room and hop into bed with them for the rest of the night. He could sleep longer and longer and eventually stop waking up in the middle of the night.

What happens after moving to a "big boy" bed will depend on your child's personality. I think many "spirited" children really chafe at being stuck in a crib, and sleep better once they have more freedom. El Chico went from waking every morning at 4 screaming for me (I'd have to haul my carcass out of bed, go into his room, and either get him back to sleep or give up adn hoist him out of the crib and back into my room) to waking every morning at 5:30 and walking into our room and sneaking into bed with us (half the time I didn't even wake up). Jamie fits the profile of the spirited child, but he's a little on the young side, so I guess we'll have to see what happens. If nothing else, bedtime is going to be less stressful for all involved. My hunch is that that's going to make the entire night easier, but I'm not willing to bet actual cash money on it.

What happened when you moved your kid to a big boy/girl bed? Did it go more or less smoothly than you'd hoped?