In praise of Dr. Ferber

Ferber seems to take a lot of flak on the internet these days.  I’m referring, of course, to Dr. Richard Ferber, author of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems and founder of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital.  His method of sleep training has become so well-known that it has its own verb: “Ferberizing.”  But spend any time on mommy forums and you’re bound to encounter science-y sounding proclamations about how terrible the so-called “cry it out” methods are for your baby.  Abandonment!  Brain damage!  Instant breastfeeding failure!

Those people are nuts.

I think when a lot of folks hear the words “sleep training,” they think of situations like the one described in this New York Times article, in which a doctor recommends leaving your 8-week-old alone for 12 hours, no matter how much he or she cries.  Don’t do that.  Don’t even think about doing that.  Seriously, that is a terrible, terrible idea.

That’s not what the Ferber method is about.

I actually read Ferber’s book, in its entirety, and it is the very opposite of ignoring your child’s needs.  His (in)famous method occupies just one chapter out of eighteen.  Most of the book deals with a variety of other sleep issues: nightmares, sleepwalking, bedwetting, circadian rhythms, etc.  It was clear to me that Dr. Ferber cares deeply about children’s well-being.  For instance, his recommendation for an older child dealing with severe anxiety is to do “whatever is necessary to help your child feel safe” – the italics are his emphasis, not mine.

My Little Boy stopped nursing himself to sleep somewhere around the 2-month mark.  Bedtime became progressively more and more of a struggle, as he grew less and less interested in being rocked or sung or swung to sleep.  By 3 months, it was taking a solid 90 minutes to put him to sleep at night, and then we’d be on tenterhooks for another 45 minutes in case he woke up at the end of that first sleep cycle.  The stress and lack of personal time was making my husband and me very unhappy.  Something was also making Little Boy very unhappy: he started crying the moment we took him out of his bath and kept it up all through his bedtime story and song.

That’s when we decided to sleep train.  Ferber’s book told us to lay him down in his crib with a kiss and leave for 3 minutes.  Go back in for more kisses and shushes and reassuring words.  5 minutes.  More reassurance.  7 minutes – wait, he’s quiet.  He’s asleep!  The next morning, Little Boy went down for his first nap with zero crying, and he cried for less than 5 minutes that next night.  Night 3 was a bit rough with 20 minutes of angry baby, but he’s been good at falling asleep ever since.

Now 7 months old, Little Boy falls asleep on his own and greets us in the morning with giant smiles.  He will sometimes grump for a few minutes when we leave him at night, but more commonly he happily babbles for a bit before getting comfy.  He sleeps well in strange places as long as he has a quiet, safe space to rest, and he’s added two teeth with extremely minimal sleep disruption.

We are happy, because nighttime is much less stressful.  Even more importantly, Little Boy is happy.  He stopped screaming during his bedtime routine, perhaps because he is confident in his ability to fall asleep.  (Ever been tired but unable to convince your mind and body to sleep?  It sucks.  It would make me scream, too.)  Sleep training has meant a lot LESS crying for Little Boy.

There are other methods of sleep training, with varying degrees of parental presence and intervention.  I liked the Ferber method’s balance of giving my baby the chance to fall asleep on his own while still allowing me to make sure he was OK.  We still check on Little Boy if he fusses for more than 5 minutes; on the rare occasion that this happens nowadays, it’s almost always because he needs a clean diaper.

Of course, you don’t need to sleep train your baby.  If you’re happily co-sleeping or just have a kid who sleeps easily and well – awesome!  Don’t fix what isn’t broken.  But if it takes hours just to put your baby to sleep at night, or if he’s waking up every 45 minutes all night long – the rest of this post is for you.

I call it “Crazy Grad Mama’s guide to (mostly) guilt-free sleep training.

Wait until your baby is old enough.  Most sources will say to hold off on sleep training until 4 months; some say to wait ’til 6 months.  The real hard-and-fast rule is to wait for the end of the “fourth trimester,” that 3-4 month period in which your baby is still adjusting to life outside the womb, his nervous system still developing to a point where it can handle the big wide world.  You can gently try to make your newborn sleep longer, but you can’t force it.

Sleep training is not the same thing as night weaning.  (In fact, they’re separate chapters in Ferber’s book.)  “Sleep training” should be about falling asleep, not specifically about sleeping through the night.  If your baby needs to nurse every hour because that’s the only way he knows to fall back asleep at the end of a sleep cycle, then yes, sleep training will mean fewer night feedings.  But you should never let your baby go hungry (duh, right?).  In our case, Little Boy had dropped to 0-1 night meals of his own accord before we sleep trained.  Since we knew that when he woke out of hunger, it was around 4-5 a.m., we decided to treat any wakings before 2 a.m. as not-hungry times.  (As it turned out, this happened only once.  I don’t remember what was bothering him, but his dad comforted him a few times, and he went back to sleep.)

Have a plan.  Consistency is key to learning any new skill or habit.  The first couple of nights of sleep training will probably suck, so it’s important to be prepared.  It’s also important to implement a legit sleep training method and not a haphazard “I’m going to let my baby cry for a while and see what happens” approach.  Read a book (or books, if you’re me) or find a non-crazy internet site for reference.  Noob Mommy has a great explanation of Ferber, and BabyCenter’s Teaching Your Baby and Toddler To Sleep board is a good resource for sleep training options (this is only time I will ever recommend a BabyCenter forum, so take note).

Commit for a week.  Again, the first few nights will be the worst, but you should see noticeable improvement after that.  It’s also not uncommon to see some improvement, then have a random worse night (like our third night).  But if you stick to it, things should be better after a week.  If they’re not, stop and reevaluate; either you, the parents, have implemented something incorrectly, or your kid needs a different approach for sleep.  (If you have Ferber’s book, you can refer to the section titled “If Things Are Not Getting Better.”)

Remember the importance of sleep.  Some people dismiss sleep training as selfish, and it undoubtedly benefits parents.  But sleep is important for growing babies, too.  Memories consolidate during sleep; the mind and body refresh and renew themselves.  Solid sleep is as important a biological need as food and human interaction.

For those about to embark on a sleep training adventure, I wish you luck!

5 thoughts on “In praise of Dr. Ferber

  1. Love this! We sleep-trained our son at about 5 months. He is a happy, healthy and extremely well-adjusted 2-year-old. He’s fearless and independent. He loves and trusts his mommies. And he sleeps through the night. Always, unless he’s sick or has a bad dream. Sleep training, done RIGHT is good for kids–I’m a firm believer!

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  3. My baby is a bit older than yours, but I wish I could transport this back in time and read it myself! I was so hesitant to sleep train, and we put it off until the 12 month mark. Oh, man. I now want to shout about Ferber from the roof tops; I LOVE his book.

    I wonder if the anti-Ferber thing is similar to the breastfeeding martyrs; people put up with their baby not sleeping well and it all eventually worked, so everyone should do that. But I’m the opposite — I see now the pain I caused myself by not figuring out a better way to help my baby fall asleep (better than “just deal with it and hope she figures it out”). I was so sleep-deprived for her whole first year. I am a happier, better mom now that we all sleep better. And my kid is so much happier and better behaved too. Before Ferber, we had a least a month where bedtime meant at least an hour of crying while being rocked/snuggled.

    I also wonder that, if I had sleep trained earlier, would naps be easier? Our baby has always been nap-resistant, and even at 20 months she really dislikes napping if anything at all interesting is going on. The best naps we’ve had recently were on airplanes 😉

    Here’s my angst and my big question: is there anything I can do when my anti-Ferber friends are having sleeping troubles with their kids? I’ve gently suggested Ferber and said I’m here as a resource. I had friends say the same, and I went to them eventually. But it kills me to listen to some of my friends and their sleep difficulties and know that they aren’t willing to try other options.

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    • I think it’s *very* similar to the breastfeeding martyrs. People can’t deal with the idea that maybe they didn’t have to suffer as much as they did, so they imagine that we must be lazy and cruel and taking the easy way out. The attachment parenting ethos has also popularized the idea that you’ve failed as a mother if your baby ever, EVER cries; I think there are people who genuinely believe that letting your kid cry to settle for three minutes in their crib is as bad as abandoning them in an orphanage in Romania.

      Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s much else you can do with your friends. New parents are so inundated with advice as it is, and we don’t want to be obnoxious about giving them more. Are they willing to try “gentler” methods of sleep training, like pick up/put down or something like the Sleep Lady method where the parent stays in the room?


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