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.

Eventually. Right.

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.


  1. Hey Andrew,

    You give some great advice. Back when my kids were young I faced the same problem and can now laugh at the antics we employed to rid our children of the nasty habit of continually popping in after bed time.

    My favorite one though still makes me laugh. Someone suggested that once a baby shifts to a regular bed they should know in no uncertain terms that they were not to leave the room under any circumstances unless it were a dire emergency, ie: blood, broken bones, earthquake (we do live in California).

    Our task was to put the child into the bed, kiss them, hug them, tell them they were fine and we'd see them in the morning and then leave the room shutting the door behind ourself. Well of course you know what's coming. Two seconds go by and you see the door know starting to turn. Our job was to hold that door shut no matter what and after a few days the child would get the message that they were REALLY not supposed to get out of bed.

    So I stood there for several nights, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying at this wacky solution, but I must say in the end it paid off. Baby loo realized that they were not to get out of bed nor leave the room, so in the long run the method worked. The irony of the situation is that I ended up creating a conforming sleeper who then, because they were not allowed to leave the room, became the worlds best bed wetter.

    Every time I had to go in and change those wet sheets I cursed my friend.

    I did it differently with the second and he rarely wet the bed.

    Trial and error are the way of the world for child rearing. I learned the hard way in the first case but I think realy is was due in part to my own sleep deprivation, which of course, led to more sleep deprivation each time I had to change the bed clothes. Go figure.


  2. Hi JB,
    That doesn't sound like much fun. You obviously won't guarantee yourself a lack of bed wetting by using the five-minute drill, but I'd have to give it the nod over the doorknob-holding technique. Many thanks for sharing your eye-opening story.

  3. My 4 year old has bad bedtime manners in cycles. It seems that for a month or 2 she's really hard and then for a month or 2 she's really easy. We haven't changed a thing so it's really frustrating and stressful trying to figure out what the heck the deal is. What I have been doing is changing my laundry time. This seems to be 'the trick' for her. We have an upstairs laundry and it's in hall between her room and ours. She seems comforted to know that I am out there where she can hear me until she falls asleep. Easy compromise. I do the laundry at a different time of the day and she's happy again.
    Thanks for the advise here! I blogged about this very thing a couple of weeks ago ( actually I would call it VENTING! HA!) Venting on here is soooo much nicer than losing patience and getting loud and grumbly with a 4 year old!
    Thanks again

  4. Hi Gealbhain,
    Yes, the laundry time trick sounds like a reasonable compromise. I would do it in a heartbeat if it got results. I wonder though, what happens when you need to be out that time of day, when you have a babysitter, when your daughter decides having you nearby changes from a comfort to a reason to visit with you. I would seriously try the five minute drill with her. Use exactly the script I provided: I love you. You're okay. I expect you to stay here until I come back in 5 minutes to check on you. It sounds like this is the sort of situation that calls for this drill. Good luck and thanks for the input.

  5. I will give it a try. It seems she's at the end of her anxiety period. (She seems to go through this every month or 2, then is fine for a month or 2 and it starts anew. I would love, desperately, for her to grow out of it. My 2 year old has been a star pupil when it comes to bedtime routine and never has, ever, given us any troubles. She goes in, goes down and is OUT! I don't know what we've done differently (if anything)?!
    Thanks again! your blog is very informative and I love your writing style.

  6. Hi Gealbhain,

    Thank you for the compliment. The feedback I have been receiving from readers has been very encouraging.

    You may not have done anything differently. Some kids are instant sleepers and others toss and turn for a long time. Some pop up in the early morning like they were shot from a toaster, while others awake slowly, all groggy and grumpy. If your 4 year old is exhibiting anxiety, the repeated reassurances of the five minute drill might do the trick. You'll have to make this judgment call, but you might want to even consider using it when she's NOT demonstrating one of her higher anxiety periods. You might try to give her the reassurances at a time when she is most receptive. Who knows, you may or may not be able to head off a reoccurrence of the cycle. Best of luck!

  7. Thanks for the 5 minute drill tip.I'm sure it will certainly come in useful once the baby is born.I will add your blog site onto my link list so I can keep coming in and viewing all your parenting tips. Will certainly need all the help I can get.This is my first kid, my hubby and me are both new at this and still young I think. Thanks Andrew!

  8. Thank you so much for your supportive comments on my blog - I obviously really needed folks to offer advice and a "you'll get through it" arm around the shoulder. I'm gonna give this 5-minute drill a try. It sounds better for ALL of us than any other technique I've seen - it keeps our hearts from breaking too much, and it also communicates to the baby that we aren't abandoning her - ever. (And for children in foster care, this is especially important)

  9. wow, first of all, thanks for your wonderful comment on my blog! I am so sleep deprived I cannot even begin to describe it. All THREE of my kids crawl into my bed every night, and even though ours is a king size bed, it cannot accomodate a mom, dad, and three children. I tried telling the kids to sleep in their own rooms and go back to their beds in the middle of the night (they are 4 and the twins are 2) but they won't listen. One claims the boogey man is in her closet and my son says there are monsters in his room and he is afraid of the dark. So I've given in and everynight after they are tucked into their beds at night, around 4 am, they all come back. I just move over and go back to sleep. Or try to anyways. Some of them sleep horizontally on my bed. which is even more annoying. Recently, after sleeping on my side on what seemed to be about 2 cm of space on the edge of mattress, I started to develop back problems. I have now decided that when I need a good night's sleep I just sleep in my son's room,he has a full size bed. The twins stay in my bed. But I continue to struggle to get the kids to sleep through the night in their own beds. I'm contemplating just locking my bedroom door, but I know they will probably scream and throw up in the middle of the night if I do that.

  10. Thank you so much for you advice, tonight will certainly be ATTEMPT #1...too bad my husband is on a 24-hour shift and I have to go it alone (I'll be sure to start early!).

    Parenting advice I've come across...

    When I heard that my boss' children eat chez-its and crackers for breakfast I'll admit it, my thoughts where "What the $#@%, how lazy is that?"
    Now that my daughter is two I've changed my mind. Regardless of how early I wake up and get ready for the day, we're always racing out the door in the morning. My daughter likes cereal, but not every morning....and mostly she likes it dry. Daycare feeds her breakfast, but I was finding that she was refusing it.
    I decided that SOMETHING was better than nothing. 9 out of 10 mornings my daughter can be found eating crackers, cheese, plain bread...whatever her little heart desires really. Though Pop-Tarts aren't exactly a great breakfast, it too is better than nothing. Plus, she thinks they're cookies!

    She's a great eater the rest of the why stress myself out by fighting her!!!

  11. So far both of my boys are great far. Caleb is still sleeping in our room at night even though he is sleeping through the night. Why you ask? Because he is nursing and I would rather hear him when he awakens (small squeaks and smiles) than have him across the hall in his room and he is in a full blown cry before I hear him and he awakens the whole house! Shortly he will be moving to his crib in his room and this will be how we deal with constant wakeups for the first little while. And I will start this with the 4-year old when he has those nights that he finds it hard to fall asleep. Thanks Andrew, love the blog! Oh yea, our "ADULT DINNER" was wonderful and we even had tea and dessert which has been unheard of in this house since....the 4-year old was born! I agree, highly recommended!

  12. Angie3:57 AM

    So I have a two year old who until about a month ago was the child every parent wanted at night. We would eat dinner, play, take a bath, read a book and go to bed around nine or so and then he would sleep until 1030 or 11! Then wanting to spend more time at home with him I switched to nights, mind you I never left except for once until I had put him to bed with my husband, but lately he started waking up about midnight, then two, then four (you get the picture) and he wanted only me (of course because I was at work at that point). Now he screams every time we put him to bed. We have a gate at his door and he kicks it, screaming "Momma" and "Daddy". If one of us goes in he wants the other there too. He eventually will sleep after 45 minutes of screaming and kicking. Tonight I started the five minute drill. Of course when we first left he was screaming not realizing we would come back in (we used your exact script but I feel it was slightly lost on a tired two year old haha)Then when we came back in he calmed down again, then he started screaming again when we left. Finally the second time he yelled for a minute then was fine, until we went back in again then started yelling again. This when in for 30 mins. Any suggestions for tweaking to have no screaming?

  13. Angie,
    That two-year-old understands much more about what is going on in your household than he can communicate right now. He also understands virtually everything you say to him. I recommend sitting down every day with him for the next while and explain that Mommy is going to work some nights, and that's okay. That you are not leaving, that you will always come back in the morning, that Daddy is here to look after you, etc. etc. Pile on the supportive and reassuring messages. Also explain that Mommy and Daddy need their sleep, and it is NOT okay for him to wake up the household every night. Tell him gently but firmly that you expect him to be courteous and let people sleep.
    Often we adults forget that toddlers are people too, and we can explain things to them.
    Hope that helps!

  14. Thank you so much for this! We have been going out of our minds with our 2 year old. He got so comfortable sitting on mommy's lap, drinking milk from a sippy cup and falling asleep for some time now.

    Well, 40 minutes ago I was looking at this page, told the wife and we decided to give it a try. We are happy to say that he is finally sleeping, 40 minutes later even.

    Tomorrow maybe different, but we will see and will do it again.

    Thank you so much. Even though we consider ourselves veterans, each child brings on new and different wonders and situations.

    Jane and Mike Tarallo
    Proud Parents of 3