Here’s why most people misunderstand the Ferber method, until they actually read the book.
My first daughter emerged from the womb a terrible sleeper. Megan awakened every hour or two nearly every night. I swaddled her. I let her sleep in the bouncy seat, in the swing, in her car seat. She only slept well when I held her, a common preference among infants. My sympathetic husband bought me a new recliner for our living room. I crashed there every night with Megan propped on the Boppy pillow in my lap, and I forgot what it was like to sleep in a bed.
I felt awful, and lingering pregnancy hormones made it worse. I burst into tears several times a week out of sheer exhaustion, I frequently resented my daughter for stealing my sleep, and I was a danger to myself and others while driving.
When Megan was four months old, I dragged my weary self to the library and tracked down Dr. Richard Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. For those unfamiliar with “Ferberization,” it’s about helping babies and young children learn to fall asleep without crutches like feeding, pacifiers, rocking, being held, etc. The Ferber method acknowledges that those are all good things, but if a baby is accustomed to falling asleep nursing, when that baby wakes in the night, she will not know how to fall back asleep on her own without being nursed back to dreamland, over and over.
The Ferber method instructs parents to put a baby to bed relaxed but not asleep. If the baby cries, a parent goes into the nursery at increasing intervals (starting with as few as two or three minutes) to reassure the baby she is not alone. These visits are brief, and the baby will likely cry louder when the parent leaves but will soon learn to fall asleep on her own.
A word of advice: Don’t try the Ferber method without reading the book! You can sabotage your efforts if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, and then you’ll claim unfairly that Ferber’s method doesn’t work. Read. The. Book.
I studied up and my husband and I steeled ourselves for Megan’s bedtime. She cried for about an hour the first night. The following night the crying lasted maybe 30 minutes. After two or three nights, I felt like I’d won the sleep lottery. Megan went to sleep easily and stayed asleep at night, waking only once around 5 a.m. to nurse, and she was a champion napper. She seemed happy with the routine, and I was transformed from a depressed zombie mom into an attentive, nurturing, well-rested mom. I began to enjoy Megan.
The Truth about the Ferber Method
I eagerly told my friends about Ferber’s miracle book, but I often got disapproving frowns and unsolicited “advice” in return. Most moms would say, “I could never let my baby cry.” Ferber has gotten a bad rap, and an undeserved one at that. Misinformation about the Ferber method abounds. Again, it’s important to read the book! The following are the most common reasons parents give me for not giving Ferber a try:
- My baby will be traumatized if I let her cry. Ferber writes, “A young child cannot yet understand what is best for him, and he may cry if he does not get what he wants. As his parents, you have to be the judge of what he can and cannot have or do … If he wanted to play with a sharp knife, you would not give it to him not matter how hard he cried, and you would not feel guilty or worry about psychological consequences. Poor sleep patterns are also harmful for your child and it is your job to correct them. Doing so is a sign of caring, not of selfishness.” The Ferber method is not about making your child cry.
- I will be traumatized if I let my baby cry. This may be true. The worst crying usually happens during the first two nights. This is when I sit in the living room and repeatedly tell my husband, “I feel like a bad mom,” while he calmly plays video games and assures me I’m the best mom in the world. Rent a good action movie, listen to music with headphones, or invest in earplugs. Baby411 suggests, tongue-in-cheek, to make the best of it by planning your next vacation. Also, understand that you will be less irritable and a better parent overall once you are rested.
- I can’t abandon my baby. Ferber’s method calls for parents to check in on the baby starting at two- to three-minute intervals. You won’t be leaving your baby to cry alone indefinitely.
- My baby might really need me. She’s probably fine, but if you’re worried, or if your baby has a tendency to get her legs caught in the crib slats or get stuck in a standing position, get a video monitor. One friend said this made the process easier because she could see her son really was okay.
- I’m afraid my baby will cry all night. If you do it right, and if you’re lucky, sometimes the crying lasts as little as 20 minutes the first night. I have friends who attest to this, but don’t count on it. One hour (or two, if you’re unlucky) seems par for the course the first night.
- I tried letting my baby cry and it didn’t work. Ferber writes, “When parents tell me they have tried helping their child by ‘letting him cry for several nights,’ usually that’s exactly what they did: they let him cry, but they did not let him fall asleep on his own. They may have let him cry for a few minutes or for an hour or more … but in the end they always went in eventually to do whatever was necessary to help him go to sleep. In effect, then, all that crying was for nothing; their child only learned that he must cry longer to get what he wants. It is not practice in crying but practice in falling asleep under new conditions that a child needs to learn. If you are going to rock your baby to sleep in the end, you would do better to rock him at once and skip the crying altogether.” For parents who have made this oopsie, be prepared for your child to cry a lot longer when you begin using the Ferber method. Your kid knows that if he cries for an hour, you’ll come get him, so he’s ready to cry for two or three hours if needed. Better hope that action movie you rented is a good one.
- I’ll just wait for my child to begin sleeping through the night on her own. This could take years. You have no reason to put off sleep training if there is nothing medically wrong with your child. Poor sleep habits left unchecked are linked to social and behavior problems, obesity and other health issues, low grades in school, and lasting effects on cognitive ability. Dr. Marc Weissbluth, author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, says sleep deprivation has even been associated with ADHD, which ironically is often treated with stimulant medication.
Megan is now 4 ½ years old and is a bright, well-adjusted preschooler. I also used Ferber’s method on my second daughter, 8-month-old Abigail. She was a better sleeper from the start, but when I began spending two or sometimes three hours getting her to go to bed each night, it was time to bring Ferber back. Both of my daughters go to bed easily and sleep through the night.
I ended up buying a used copy of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems on Amazon so I’d always have it to refer to. In addition to sleep-training and advice about scheduling and establishing routines, the book addresses sleep walking, nightmares, colic, bedwetting, apnea, travel-related sleep problems, and more. It is my sleep Bible, and my hope is that more parents would come to understand how good Ferber’s advice is. It is not cruel. Your child won’t need therapy later. And with a good night’s sleep, you’ll be a better parent, which may further lessen the odds that your child will need therapy as an adult! When you and your child get a good night’s rest, everyone wins.
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