In the good old days, babies went in cribs and kids slept in beds. But the rise of the low-to-the-ground, whimsical toddler bed (inevitably shaped like a race car) has left parents scratching their heads. Do you need a toddler bed, or can you just keep your kid in a crib until he or she is ready for a proper bed? And what sort of thought should go into picking the perfect toddler bed, from a scientific and safety perspective?
“The bottom line is toddler safety,” says Dr. Shalini Paruthi, medical co-director of the St. Luke’s Sleep Medicine and Research Center. “What do I do once the baby has started to climb out of the crib consistently?” Since toddler beds are lower to the ground, Paruthi says, they’re worthwhile because restless sleepers and active toddlers simply have less distance to fall.
There are cost-effective alternatives to toddler beds and parents on a budget can often solve many of their problems by simply placing a mattress directly on the floor. But for those determined to invest in a toddler bed, there are a few things to look out for. Paruthi suggests parents avoid toddler beds with slats on the side. “There have been some injuries,” she says. “And parents definitely want to avoid any type of toddler bed that has a top to it. You don’t want tents for your toddler bed.” Perhaps even the less safe toddlers beds, however, may be better than a popular alternative—bunk beds. “We don’t want the child on the top bunk to fall off.”
Toddler beds also tend to come in unique shapes and designs, which may motivate children to go to sleep without putting up a fight. “A lot of toddler beds come with decorations or themes, which might be helpful for kids who need motivation to go to bed at night,” Paruthi says. “It can be more inviting to go to sleep if they have a Barbie-themed or a Cars-themed bed.”
That last point cannot be overstated. Two-year-olds need 11 to 14 hours of sleep each night, and toddlers between the ages of three and five still need 10 to 13 hours of shuteye, including naps. When toddlers do not get enough sleep, they often behave like tired adults but, on occasion, they can act out in odd ways. “They feel this sensation that they’re getting sleepy, but they don’t want to go to sleep,” Paruthi says. “So they move on to something else, a new activity. They realize they’re sleepy, a new activity. They look hyperactive.”
In a word, if a toddler bed can get toddlers into bed and keep them there, they are probably worth a parent’s attention. “We certainly want these exploring two or four-year-olds to have a safe sleep environment, and we want to make sure it’s something they get excited about, so they have a good bedtime routine,” Paruthi says. “It all comes down to safety and consistency.”