Encouraging Kids to Fall Asleep on Their Own: The Timer Method

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End to co-sleeping

It’s a familiar scene to many parents: you finally get your kiddo into bed only for them to come out, over and over again. Or, it’s the middle of the night and you find a kid (or 2) in your bed again. The won’t fall asleep on their own; and the only way they will go to sleep is if you lay with them until they fall asleep. Just like last night, and the night before, and the night before…

Now, before reading further please know I am not on team “co-sleeping is bad.” I am on team “if you don’t want to continue co-sleeping and your child WILL NOT stay in bed without you, then let’s fix it.” If your current situation is working and everyone is happy, GREAT! If you find yourself wanting more sleeping space and your child to consistently fall asleep in their own bed on their own, then let’s figure this out together. 

Intentional vs. Reactive Co-Sleeping

There are two reasons for co-sleeping: intentional and reactive. As I said, if you have decided that co-sleeping is best for your family and you are all happy, then carry-on wise mama with your intentional co-sleeping. Enjoy it and embrace it; after all, we can’t do it all.  But if the co-sleeping is a reaction to anything other than a family-based decision, then it is reactive co-sleeping. And reactive co-sleeping is often something at least 1 or 2 family members are not thrilled about. 

Sometimes there are family difficulties that stem from reactive co-sleeping; alone time with your spouse is consistently interrupted and causes arguments; your child develops trouble doing things on their own that other kids their age have no trouble with; you miss out on weekends with your friends because your kids can’t go to sleep without you; you haven’t slept alone with your spouse in your bed for years; your kid is scared to go in the basement without you or use the bathroom with the door closed (or scared to go anywhere without you); family members and babysitters are reluctant to care for your children overnight because of the difficulty with bedtime; and so on.   

If a child over 3 years of age doesn’t have control of a few basic needs that they can meet intrinsically, life can be scary. Sleep is a basic need that children should become more independent with and more confident in their ability to manage as they age. This doesn’t mean we don’t help guide and structure their independent sleep and routines

If you feel you must control the exact number of hours of sleep your child MUST get, then your super-smart and intuitive kid will likely recognize this and use it to lure you into lying with them until they fall asleep. They’ll come out of their bed 100 times until you are so concerned about the amount of sleep they’re not getting, that you’ll lay with them.

The same is true for the reverse: The same intuitive, energy-reading kids will be able to see when you’ve personally hit a wall and can no longer go without your own sleep, and know they can crawl into your bed. Both are reactive reasons to co-sleep.  

The Timer Method

Rather than repeatedly walking your child back to their room every time they come out (which, let’s admit, can be A LOT), let’s try another strategy. Let’s create success by EMPOWERING kids to fall asleep on their own. No, I’m not talking about making your kid cry. I don’t want your kid to be scared; I don’t want any kid to be scared. But I do want to EMPOWER kids by helping them see that their own bed in their own house is SAFE. How can they feel safe anywhere if they cannot feel safe at home with their entire family safe inside? This is a place where they can be empowered. 

So if your kid comes out of the their bed many times or they just can’t fall asleep in their own bed without a person near them, let’s help them create success by beating them to the connection they are seeking. 

Step 1:

Pick a time when you don’t have a lot of night activities or travels going on. Set a timer for the “under” (how long your kid your kid can stay in their bed before they get out). It might be one minute, or it might be 5 minutes. Set the timer where the child can see it. Depending on the child’s age, you could use a kitchen timer, or a visual timer.

Tell them you will come back and check on them when that timer goes off (set a timer on your phone for the same time). Make sure you set the number low enough that they can be successful. Don’t be late when the timer goes off! When you come back in and they are in their bed, make a big deal of it. “Look at you in your bed! What a big girl/boy you are! You are safe, you are not walking around looking for us. Let me give you a big hug and a kiss! How long can we set the timer for now?” (Here’s a video of the Timer Method in action.)  

Step 2:

Set the timer again. DO NOT set it past what you think the child will be successful with, but see if they’re ready for an additional minute or two (or five!). We want and will energize ONE success: staying in their bed and not coming out. Help them CREATE the success. 

Yes, you’ll be going in there A LOT that first night. And yes, they might not fall asleep until midnight or later; you can’t control that. They control their own sleep. You can only control the behavior you energize. 

Step 3:

After you’ve gone in a few (or many) times and they’re starting to look sleepy, tell them that if they fall asleep before the timer goes off you’ll still come back, and you’ll leave them a note next to the timer (and do it!). That way, they will still feel safe that you are going to come check on them; they don’t have to stay awake to ensure that happens. They need to trust that you will see them WITHOUT coming out of their bed.  

But what if they come out?  You will ignore them. When the timer goes off, you’ll go in their room and sit on their bed and “energize” them as they crawl back into bed. If they just won’t get in the bed,energize” them for being in their room. No energy is given outside of the room. Set the timer again, but for a shorter time (well UNDER the time when they came out). 

You will be surprised how quickly you are able to add more time between each check-in. If they come out, you set the timer too long. 

Setting Kids up for Success

Have a family meeting about how this new method will look prior to bedtime. Allow children to help determine the evening routine, and remember the importance of going visual with that routine. Review the American Academy of Pediatrics sleep recommendations and ask older children what would be a reasonable bedtime based on the time they need/want to wake up?

AAP Sleep Recommendations

We all wake up at night a few times. Feeling safe and secure and confident to fall asleep on their own should help other sleep problems fade as well, and will allow you to walk the child back to their bedroom to fall asleep in the middle of the night without a fight.  

Let’s EMPOWER our children to feel safe where things are truly safe.  

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Erika has worked in the educational setting as a physical therapist for 17 years, after attending UND and NDSU. After recognizing difficult behaviors in her third child, she became an advanced trainer of the Nurtured Heart Approach®. Professionally, Erika is also a mentor, course-captain, and clinical instructor, and has served students in the Autism magnet program for 10 years. She recently served on the Pediatric Advisory Board for Curriculum Development at UND, and on a task force with the Department of Instruction to create the first school-based PT/OT guidelines in the state. She also is a mentor with BioGirls, leads a group of teenage boys at confirmation, leads a Girl Scout troop, and has coached baseball. For the past two Mother’s Days, Erika has hosted a Neighborhood Chalk Party, an event designed to further build relationships in neighborhoods on the principle of “it takes a village to raise a child.” She was born and raised in Hankinson, ND, and has lived in the Fargo area for over 25 years with her husband (who you may know as the radio DJ on Bob 95 FM: "Chris, John and Cori in the Morning"). Together they have four children: girl-boy-boy-girl, ages 10-16. Erika is passionate about empowering kids, preventative health, hiking, and national parks.

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