Sunday, July 23, 2006
The Five-Minute Drill
Every mother will tell you this hurts. A lot. No, I don't mean the agony of labor and childbirth. This pain comes later. It pulls at your insides, has you pacing back and forth in emotional agony, feeling helpless, like an unfit parent.
I watched my wife go through this when our firstborn son was eight months old. Truth be told, I felt a pretty good dose of the discomfort myself. I could tell, though, that she suffered much worse than I.
Like so many parents, we didn't know what else to do. Our son had been sleeping through the night for a while and we were quite happy about that. The problem was bedtime. Each night we would bathe, clothe, feed and rock him. Then it was that dreaded hour when we had to put him in his crib for the night. Maybe you're going through this in your home right now. Or perhaps you can only remember how bad it felt to leave your baby standing in the crib, one chubby hand grasping the side rail, the other reaching pitifully in your direction, his face screwed up in abject misery while he wailed at the top of their lungs. (I use "he" in this article, though we all know in half the cases it should be "she.") No words were necessary; our son's message was clear: "Mom! Dad! I don't want to be alone. Please come get me. Mom! Help me!! I need you! Please! Mommmmm!! I'm really hurting in here. Please … I really need you!"
Raising children is one of the most difficult challenges couples face. Parents get paid for their efforts with tiny hugs, feelings of immense pride and almost infinite love. Still, the task can be exhausting, expensive, life altering, time consuming and incredibly stressful. This can be especially true for new parents, who often face a steep learning curve and the nearly constant demands of a tiny person who is utterly dependent on you for their every need. Your marriage can end up taking a back seat for a while after the arrival of a newborn. All of this can have quite an impact on your marriage relationship, which is why I decided to include articles about parenting on this site. The relationships between parents and children are also tremendously important and worthy of discussion in this type of forum.
So what do you do when your child puts up such a fuss at bedtime? It seems you have two options. One approach is to go back into the bedroom and comfort him. That might involve simply reassuring him and trying to get him to lay down and go to sleep. Or you might pick him up until he settles down, then put him back in the crib. When you try to leave again, though, he starts screaming once more. All of this leaves you right back where you started.
You could pick him up and rock and/or walk with him until he falls asleep, maybe even take him into bed with you. That's not the objective of the exercise, though. Eventually you need to get to the point where you can put him in bed and he'll go to sleep by himself.
The second option is to wait him out. Once you put him to bed, stay out of his room and let him cry himself to sleep. The theory is that he will eventually learn you are not going to come back in, so he will eventually get to the point where you can put him in bed and he won't cry.
See, here is where that pain comes in. We tried the "wait him out" approach with our son ... once. Well, "once" may be a bit of an overstatement since we weren't able to go through with it. The tug on the heartstrings was just too powerful. "I can't stand it," my wife said as she paced back and forth in the living room, hugging herself in distress. "My baby needs me. I have to go to him." But I was strong, I got her to wait some more. Didn't matter. Before long neither of us could hold out any longer. We went to comfort him ... and we were right back where we started.
With the benefit of hindsight, I realize waiting out a crying baby is not a good strategy. The child is in considerable distress. Even if you know he's perfectly safe when alone in his bed, he is far from convinced. The experience is obviously traumatic for him. He feels alone, ignored, perhaps even abandoned. The whole thing seems cruel.
But what else could we do? Going back in didn't work and staying out was worse. That's when somebody told us about...
The Best Parenting Tip We Ever Received
It happened on a routine trip to our family doctor. Upon hearing of our bedtime struggles, he told us about the five-minute drill. Here's how it works.
We put our son in bed and left, with him crying as usual. After waiting exactly five minutes by the clock, we went back in to comfort him. (I say "we" but it can be one or both parents.) We told him, "You're okay. Mommy and Daddy love you and we're right outside your room. You're not alone. Everything's all right, so you just lay down and go to sleep." We laid him down and said, "We'll be back in five minutes to check on you." Then we left.
Of course he popped right back up and resumed his wailing. We watched the clock and repeated the routine every five minutes. Here's the key: you go back into his room every five minutes regardless of what he is doing at the time. If he is crying, you go back in. If he is quiet, you go back in. You are teaching him that (a) he is neither alone nor abandoned and there is no need for panic, and (b) he cannot influence your behavior. You will reappear like clockwork every five minutes no matter what he does, stopping only after you find him asleep.
We tried this with our eight-month-old son. The first night he fell asleep after an hour. The second night took about forty minutes, the third about twenty, and on the fourth night he went to sleep with no fuss. Needless to say we were thrilled. We had similar results when our other children reached the same age.
We had to pull out the five-minute drill and dust it off when our son reached 18 months and graduated from his crib to a toddler bed. For the first time he was able to get out of bed when he awoke so he started bouncing into our bedroom in the middle of the night, all ready to party. Some of our friends pull their children into bed with them in those situations but we have always felt this is a slippery slope. It encourages your children to disturb your sleep on a regular basis. I don't know about you, but lack of sleep has a considerable effect on my ability to be productive and cheerful throughout the day. We wanted our son to go back to his own bed, so that's where we took him.
Next time he woke up, though, back in he came, over and over again.
A couple we know gave us another great parenting tip at that point. "Tell him," they said, "that you don't want him to do that."
Duh. Seems obvious now, doesn't it? How unfair was that to our son. We were frustrated with him for coming into our room at night, yet it didn't occur to us to simply explain the ground rules to him. So we told him, "Unless you are sick or really need us for some reason, we expect you to stay in your bed and go back to sleep. Mommy and Daddy need to sleep too."
The next night? You got it. In he came, all bouncy and happy to see us. At that point we had to back up our instructions by applying the five-minute drill. Once again it only took a few nights before he got the idea.
You may have a young one at home or perhaps children are still in your future. If so, pop this technique into your parenting toolkit. It certainly has proven useful for us.
Do you have a great parenting tip to pass along? Or perhaps you have a problem you're uncertain how to handle. Either way, be sure to send an email or enter a comment using the link below. Comments can be made anonymously if you prefer and the identities of email respondents always remain confidential.