How to Handle Your Toddler (or Baby!) Climbing Out of the Crib

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toddler jailbreak
“He pulled a jailbreak!”

Those were my friend’s words one morning, when I met her for coffee. She looked frazzled and a little panicky; turns out her 18 month old toddler had climbed out of the crib the night before, and had nearly scared his poor parents to death.

Not that her experience was anything unusual, of course; plenty of parents have experienced those disconcerting “jailbreaks”! Our little ones somehow channel their inner monkeys and figure out how to climb (or maybe even vault!) right out of the crib.

But how do you handle this? What are you supposed to do when you find your toddler (or even worse, your baby) on the wrong side of the crib bars? In this article, we’ll examine your options to prevent or eliminate those middle-of-the-night jailbreaks.

Is It Dangerous For Your Baby or Toddler To Climb Out of the Crib?

First, though, a reminder: if your baby or toddler has figured out how escape the crib, don’t ignore it. This isn’t a phase you should wait out. If your baby or toddler is regularly climbing out of the crib, it can sometimes be dangerous. Not always, of course, but sometimes. A child can be injured by falling from the crib (especially if your baby or toddler’s room isn’t carpeted). What’s more, a child who’s loose in his bedroom, in the middle of the night, is at risk (especially if your house isn’t toddler-proofed).

Let’s review a few options to help with your crib climbing toddler.

Get a Sleep Sack

This is a good option for those of you who have babies who are trying to escape the crib. Granted, this isn’t common; most children don’t start attempting to climb from their cribs until some time after their first birthdays.

However, babies as young as 8 and 9 months have been known to fling themselves from their cribs. This is especially true for babies who hit their mobility milestones (like crawling, standing, and walking) early.
Some kids are just natural-born climbers!

If this is the case in your home, consider a sleep sack for your baby. Sleep sacks enclose a baby’s legs and feet, leaving enough room for the baby to move comfortably, but not enough for the baby to actually climb. Sometimes, a small restriction like that is enough to discourage your baby from doing any middle-of-the-night climbing.

DON’T Get a Crib Tent

I realize it’s odd to include a “don’t” in our list of options, but this warning bears repeating. In the past, specialty products called “crib tents” were marketed as solutions for keeping active toddlers in their cribs. Made of mesh, the tents fit right over the top of the crib and zipped shut, making it impossible for toddlers to climb out the top.

Problem was, these crib tents weren’t safe at all. They posed major entrapment and strangulation risks for children. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) launched an investigation into the safety of crib tents in 2008. They (along with 5 major retailers) finally issued a massive recall Spring 2012.

Bottom line: crib tents aren’t safe, and they aren’t a solution for your baby or toddler climbing from the crib.

Lower the Mattress

This one might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to miss the obvious when you’re utterly sleep-deprived! (Then again, maybe you wouldn’t be surprised — if you’re a Baby Sleep Site reader, chances are you’re a little sleep-deprived yourself!)

If you haven’t already, try lowering your baby’s crib mattress to its lowest possible point. This will make it harder for your baby or toddler to get enough leverage to hoist herself over the crib rails.

Switch From a Crib to a Bed

So, crib tents are out. And sleep sacks might work for babies, but they might not for toddlers (especially older toddlers). They do make toddler sleep sacks, but it’s debateable as to whether it will work (or work for long anyway). What’s left, then?

The most effective way to keep your toddler from climbing out of the crib is simply to remove the crib altogether, and to transition your toddler into a bed. It can be any kind of bed, really — a regular-sized twin bed works (as long as you add the appropriate safety rails), and so does a toddler bed. A mattress on the floor will even work! In fact, that’s what I’ve always preferred; having a mattress right on the floor minimized falls and made it easier for my boys to get into and out of their beds when they were younger.

Is My Toddler Ready for a Bed?

If your toddler is 2 years or older, then definitely make the switch from crib to bed. By 2, most toddlers are starting to outgrow their crib anyway; by 2 1/2, it’s likely they’re downright cramped. In fact, this may be why your toddler trying to escape — because sleeping in the crib isn’t comfortable anymore!

If your toddler is between 18 months and 2 years, consider making the switch. 18 months is early, but it’s still within the window of time (18 – 30 months) that’s considered reasonable for transitioning from a crib to a toddler bed. 18 months will work for some babies, but not for others.

If your toddler is younger than 18 months, things get tricky. Try the sleep sack method first, as well as lowering the crib mattress. If that proves fruitless, consider making the switch to a bed.

In this article, we’re not going to tackle the ins-and-outs of how to help your toddler make that transition. We’re planning a separate article on that topic, actually, so stay tuned!

Nicole’s Note:
“We hear from parents all the time who switch to a bed abruptly after a toddler climbs out once from their crib. If a toddler is under the age of two, we really try to keep them in the crib, if we can (our recommendation is not until 2 1/2 to 3, if possible). Just because he climbed out once doesn’t mean he will do it again. For some, it frightens them and they don’t try again. Unfortunately, some toddlers lack the impulse control to stay in a bed with imaginary boundaries (even if they conceptually understand they aren’t supposed to get out), so going to a toddler or twin bed too soon can create a ‘jack in the box’ with your toddler getting out of bed umpteen times a night!”

Is Toddler Crib Climbing an Isolated Problem, or Is It Part of Something Bigger?

Finally, something to think about before we wrap up: are your toddler’s crib escapades an isolated incident, or are they part of a larger problem?

If your toddler has always been a decent sleeper, and the crib escaping is something new, then you can focus on finding ways to put an end to his crib climbing. But if your toddler has never slept well, and the crib escaping is just one piece in a larger puzzle of terrible sleep habits, you may need to think bigger. Stop your child from escaping the crib, yes, but focus on improving your toddler’s sleep habits overall.

Have you dealt with a “jail breaking” toddler climbing out of the crib? What steps did you take? Share your wisdom, parents — we love hearing from you!

Feeling ready to “tame” your little crib-climbing monkey? Please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of Toddler Sleep Secrets, our e-Book offering tips to help your toddler sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.

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23 Responses to How to Handle Your Toddler (or Baby!) Climbing Out of the Crib

  1. Emily says:

    I have a 24 month old who isn’t the least bit interested in escaping her crib, and sleeps for hours and hours and naps like a champ. We have the opposite of problems and I am nervous to move her to a big bed in case her sleep habits change. Will you do a post in the future (or just respond here!) about transitioning when things are going pretty well and you don’t want to screw it up!

  2. Kirsten says:

    I have the same concern, Emily! Our son (27 months) still loves his crib. He has started skipping naps occasionally but still plays quietly in his crib for an hour and a half. We have another baby on the way (due in March) and am nervous about moving him to a big bed in fear that he will stop napping or get up throughout the night.

  3. Elena says:

    I think, moving the bed mattress down is the best way. Unfortunately i understood it only after my 15 month baby had fallen down on his head from the crib and got a crack in his skull :( The crib side was up to his chest and i didnt expect him to be that good in climbing – stupid mistake! So i would advice everyone to put the mattress down when the baby starts to stand and put a thick carpet under the bed.

  4. Kendra says:

    My son is 18 1/2 months. He hasn’t tried escaping (yet) and we can still go down one more notch on his mattress setting, but this article is timely as I have been wondering if we’re going to face jailbreaks in the coming months. Despite that, I feel pretty good about some changes we made lately. I gave him a very flat pillow with a super soft pillow case and I’ve started tucking him in (this came after I noticed he was actually sleeping under his blanket sometimes). Usually I figure he sleeps in a different position in the bed pretty much every night, but I think we’re making progress toward him sleeping with his head on the pillow and tucked under the blanket. It always helps if he falls asleep quickly, of course :)

    I feel like that’ll help when we do move to a toddler bed, somehow. Getting him used to sleeping with his head at the same end every night and under a blanket maybe might train him to lie still once he gets into bed until he goes to sleep.

  5. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Emily and Kirsten — If things are going well, then definitely don’t feel ANY pressure to make changes! If your 2 year olds are still digging their cribs, then you don’t need to worry about making the switch to a big kid bed right now. Bigger 2 year olds can start to get cramped in their cribs, but it doesn’t sound like that’s a problem for your little ones.

    One thing to consider as your toddlers grow — you’ll probably want to make the switch to a big bed before you start potty training, whenever that may be. I usually start potty training around 2 1/2 (ish), and I try to make sure we’ve moved to a big kid bed before that point. That way, if a trip to the potty is necessary during the night, your little one isn’t trapped in the crib.

    However, potty training’s probably still at least a few months (maybe many more!) away for each of you, so in the meantime, enjoy the bars! And thanks for commenting, ladies. :)

  6. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Elena — excellent tips! And how scary about your baby’s fall — you must’ve been terrified! I think most pediatricians recommend dropping the mattress to its lowest point once your baby can pull up to stand. And a big YES to your think carpet suggestion! Hardwood floors are certainly beautiful and stylish, but they definitely make it more dangerous for babies who are prone to climbing. ;)

    Thanks for commenting, Elena, and for sharing your experience and insights! Much appreciated.

  7. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Kendra — if it makes you feel more secure, you could always drop his mattress down to the lowest notch. That extra inch or two might make you feel better, if nothing else! ;)

    And it can definitely be a good idea to get him used to pillows/blankets before you make the switch to a big bed. Although if your son is anything like my middle one, you’ll still find him sleeping at the wrong end of the bed when he’s 4!!

    Thanks for commenting, Kendra. :)

  8. Libby says:

    We have a 17 month old who was (and still sleeps) in a Sleep Sack who flipped herself head-over-heels from her crib to the floor. What a thud. We also had the mattress at the lowest notch.

    We have moved her into her pac-n-play to sleep for naps and nighttime. We have added a more padded mattress to the pac-n-play. She hasn’t escaped or fallen out of it thus far. Still sleeping without missing a beat.

    I am curious as to why this was not mentioned as an alternative, moving the baby to a pac-n-play? We don’t have any other options at this point, really. Moving her to a toddler bed, or mattress on the floor would equate to a very busy mobile little girl, and free to roam her room is not a safe option. She is a climber of all things. Is a pac-n-play not a safe place to sleep for long term? She has plenty of space to move around?

    Thoughts? Or other suggestions?
    thank you.

  9. Emily says:

    My son will be two and a half in February. He also LOVES his crib. He’s never been a good sleeper, but has always loved his crib! He’s already potty trained (but never wakes in the night to go), so that’s not an issue either. Here’s my question: People always talk about kids outgrowing their cribs, but isn’t a toddler bed the exact same size, just no walls? So, aren’t you only gaining space if you move to a twin bed from the crib? How long do kids generally sleep in toddler beds? Is it cruel to keep my kid “behind bars” as long as he’s happy and his sleep isn’t hindered (well, any more than it is just by him being him! :-)) Thanks!!

  10. Delacey says:

    Thanks for the article. Just this weekend we were trying to figure out our best option for our escaping 20 month old monkey. Due to the design of our crib, we were able to take out the bottom plank and have the matress on the floor inside the crib. Its working so far :)and hopefully will continue for some time as he is not ready for a toddle bed. The only limitation with this solution is that it is a little akward laying him down due to the distance down.

  11. Meagan says:

    Not yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Right now he just holds onto the rails and screams. :-/ We’re going through the 18 month sleep regression… wasn’t that supposed to last 4-6 weeks? Because I think we’re on week 7 or 8 now… I’m kinda losing track. Night times are starting to get back to normal… and we’ve got him “sleeping in” until 5:30 (from 4:15). We gave up on naps when his refusal (and hour long screaming) started making his night sleep even worse… For the last month we’ve been doing driving naps… 3+ hours or circling even though I know the sleep quality isn’t as good. We wanted to tackle one problem at a time… And wanted him rested enough to sleep at night. Nights still aren’t great, but I can’t take much more driving in circles… Not to mention the gas. I’m not sure how to get him back to napping in his crib. If he figures out how to climb out I think I’ll lose my mind. :-)

  12. twinmama says:

    i have restless & active 20 month old twins(a boy& a girl).My girl climbs anything possible ,so her crib is just one of them.
    She tries at any opportunity to climb out of her crib and has fallen head down twice.i could keep her on a mattress on the floor but she is way too active for me not to know what she is doing at any point in time at night because she could be up unknown to us.What do i do ?because these forced “jailbreaks” come with crying tantrums and spells of wanting to be free.She sleeps perfectly in our room,but most times i am not home to watch them fall asleep(the nanny does,i am a working mum.My boy is A BIT calmer but needs a lot of food to stay calm and stay asleep.

  13. sherine says:

    My son is 27 months old and was always a good sleeper (still is thank God). His crib is still big enough for him, so he is not trying to escape the discomfort… I do not think he is trying to escape at all in fact, I believe he is just exploring. I caught him twice with one leg all above the crib side, the shorter one which was usually the side we used to use to put him in bed.

    As a solution, and for fear he would fall out and hurt himself, I turned the bed around making the short side next to the wall so he can no longer climb out.. I put steps (those plastic things you use to help a toddler reach the toilet seat or the sink) 0n the now-outer side of the bed where we put him in so I can easily put him in and pick him up again.

    So far it is working out well

  14. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Libby — that’s a really creative solution, actually, and one that I haven’t heard mentioned before! I’m assuming that your little girl isn’t climbing out of the Pack-N-Play because she can’t climb the mesh sides. Makes sense.

    I think this is a great option for parents whose young toddlers are climbing from the crib. It might also be a good solution for parents of smaller toddlers.

    I don’t know that this would work for everyone, though, due to the space factor. Pack-N-Plays tend to be smaller than the crib (at least, mine is), and my kids (who’ve all been really, really tall) pretty much outgrew the Pack-N-Play altogether by around 18 months.

    That said, though, this might be the perfect solution for smaller toddlers. Thanks for mentioning it, Libby! Very helpful. :)

  15. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Emily — Good observation! A toddler bed is indeed exactly the same size as a crib (since both use a crib-sized mattress.) So you’re right — parents who need to transition because their toddler is cramped for space might do well to go straight to a twin-sized bed. That’s what I’ve always done. My kids are tall, and by 2, both my boys BADLY needed to be in a bigger bed. So we just put a twin-sized mattress on the floor and called that the new big kid bed. Worked like a charm :)

    I think toddler beds are good options for toddlers who still fit well onto a crib mattress but who need to be out of the crib due to their climbing/vaulting out of it.

    Overall, I’d say if your guy is happy in his crib, you can leave him there. No need to mess with a good thing ;)

  16. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Delacey — interesting solution! I’m assuming you also adjusted the legs of the crib somehow, so that there’s not a gap between the mattress and the bottom of the crib frame.

    Let us know if this proves to be a good solution! And thanks for commenting. :)

  17. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Meagan — ouch! Sounds like the 18 month regression is chewing you up and spitting you out right about now. ;) I think you’re wise to focus on tackling one issue at a time, though. If you try to fix everything at once, you’ll probably get overwhelmed.

    This could be the regression mixed with some good, old-fashioned pre-terrible-two’s behavior. My kids always started that classic toddler behavior (temper tantrums, etc.) right around 18 months. It’s a killer, especially because they’re still so pre-verbal at that stage, so you can’t even attempt to reason with them. Ugh.

    Hang in there! And keep us posted on how things go, Meagan! :)

  18. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ twinmama — I’m so sorry you’re going through this! No wonder you’re feeling frustrated. I’ve always thought parents of twins should receive superhero capes after giving birth ;)

    What have you tried so far to keep your daughter in her crib? Have you tried a sleep sack? What about putting her in the pack-N-play, as @ Libby mentioned in an earlier comment? Provided she’s not too big for it, that might be a good option.

    Sounds like transitioning to a bed isn’t a good choice yet, since she’d user her new-found freedom to bounce all over her room at night. Not ideal! Maybe you can make do with something (like a Pack-N-Play, or a sleep sack) for a few months, and then make the transition then, when you’ve had time to prepare for it.

    Let us know what you end up doing! And thanks for commenting!

  19. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Sherine — Glad you’re finding a solution that’s working well for you! No sense in making the switch right now if your son seems content in his crib. Better to leave it until the need really arises.

    Thanks for commenting, Sherine! :)

  20. Meg says:

    My 26 month old is also quite content with his crib and still fits in just fine (though we tested his PnP today and he’s pushing those limits). Our second child is due in July 2013 and we will be needing to transition our toddler to a big kid bed shortly thereafter (once the excitement of the new addition wanes). I, too, will be interested in an article about how to best make such a transition without “messing up” our good sleeper!

  21. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Meg — that article (about how to make the transition from crib to bed) is due out in early March, so it should come in time for you to read it and glean some ideas before baby #2 arrives!

    Strength and energy to you today, Meg — I remember well how exhausting it is to be chasing a toddler while pregnant! ;)

  22. Megan says:

    My 6 month old has been climbing his crib for the last 2 weeks. He was never a really good sleeper but nights have gone from bad to worse with his new skill. He climbs the crib 3 to 4 times/ night and stands there screaming until my husband or I come in and place him back down in his crib. I believe once he stands up, he is too scared to let go. It took him a day to learn how to stand up; why is it taking so long for him to learn how to sit, or lay, back down? We try to let him cry it out but that has lasted up to 2 hours in the middle of the night and he stands that whole time. The crib is at its lowest and there is no way he is ready for a bed.

  23. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Megan — to be clear, when you say “climbing his crib”, do you mean that he’s pulling up to a standing position and then standing in his crib? That’s definitely frustrating (as you mention here!) but that’s not cause for concern safety-wise. In this article, I’m specifically addressing toddlers (and possibly babies) who literally climb OUT of the crib and end up on the other side of the crib bars.

    The solution definitely isn’t a bed — you’re right, there’s no way a 6 month old is prepared for that! You mention that your son has never been a good sleeper — it could be that he’s ready for some sleep training. Have you checked out our free guide? If not, you can access it here: http://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-sleep-through-night-free-ebook/

    I’d suggest downloading a copy of that and reading it to see if there are tips and techniques you can use at home, to encourage your baby to sleep better at night.

    Let us know how it goes, Megan! And thanks for commenting :)