“So when do you put your child in a bed?”
Next to, “When does your baby start sleeping through the night?” this question is probably the next most frequently asked bedtime question. And like most people, I’ll respond with the common sense answer: whenever you want to!
That said, I’ll offer some thoughts.
We’ve had four little beanies right in a row in our house, so the bed question has come up periodically throughout the last five years. As our third child is nearing the special age, I believe I have come up with an answer that I am most comfortable with: when your child finishes taking naps, he is ready. This assumes that your child fits an average situation where he or she starts giving up a nap around two-and-a-half years of age and outgrows it for sure by around three-and-a-half. This is not an iron clad rule where Absolutely No Naps must take effect at the three-and-a-half yardline, but those times where the older toddler does need a nap are for days of sickness, lots of activity, etc. It should be the exception, not the rule, and you should see the child more happily accepting a rhythm of earlier bedtime rather than naptime.
Of course, some children are exceptional and continue their naps even into the kindergarten ages.
But the thing is, if you don’t want to make keeping your child in their bed a big vigilance commitment on your part (and possibly a bone of contention on theirs), you can confine the Must Stay In Bed rule to just one period a day… nighttime, when they’re actually tired. Between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half, most kids master the necessary skills surrounding going to bed. He or she is probably talkative, able to understand a small explanation or video about bedtime, may possibly be toileting or brushing their teeth, able to get their pj’s on by themselves or with small assistance, enjoys taking a bath, can clamber in and out of their bed, get their covers on (or off), stay in without falling over the edge, come upstairs if there is a problem/emergency, enjoys a short storytime, etc etc.
Some people are eager to get their kids into beds because they are embarrassed that someone they know (or have heard about) kept their kid in a crib until they were four. Or their kid is jumping out of it already so they figure, why bother? Other reasons include simply enjoying the excursion to a store for more grown-up furniture, wanting to encourage their child’s sense of independence, figuring a certain age is just “the age” that everyone else is getting out of their cribs, needing to use the crib for a new baby, or simply being sick of seeing the crib and/or lifting up a heavy toddler to get in it. My husband fell into this last category; I fell into the second-to-last.
Actually, I fell into this category twice. By the time my third child was impending, we had my oldest toddler in his crib with the bar off (effectively, a toddler bed), and my younger toddler still in his crib; he was only sixteen months old. I had no desire to take my younger toddler from his crib (not to mention that he probably didn’t either–he was, and still is, a creature of habit for whom adjustments are always a big deal). And I didn’t particularly want to strip my three-year-old of his toddler bed either because we had just gotten him in it and he was comfortable there. I had had dreams of putting both of them in a bunk bed and didn’t want to buy a temporary bed.
So I did what any other mom in my position would have done: nothing. I kept everybody where they were, used a pack ‘n play with our newborn, and then when I got tired of that, I bought another crib second-hand. THREE CRIBS! It sounds silly and my husband was mad at me, but I just couldn’t deal with the challenge of trying to move people around at the same time that I was nursing and trying to get another person to sleep through the night! It was like that for a year. When my younger toddler finally turned two-and-a-half, we bought the long-awaited bunk beds and put the two older kids in them, and everything was fine in Never-Never land. Then we were down to one crib. But we got the second one back out again when I had my fourth. (We sold that third one.)
If we found out tomorrow we were having a fifth, I wouldn’t hesitate to put him/her in the Pack ‘n play again until I was ready to deal with moving the next person into a big bed. Four babies down the line, it doesn’t have the significance it once did. I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be that person who kept the kid in until four, although that is not my ideal per se. I learned that having a toddler in a crib is all a matter of personal taste: how does it make you feel to have someone still in there? If it doesn’t make you feel bad, then great! Move your child when you want, or when he expresses interest. But make sure his interest is compatible with the responsibility too. If it is not convenient to move somebody, then don’t. He won’t go to college with people asking about it. (Unless he’s still in a crib by then, of course.)