A bunch of readers’ questions: Ferberizing demystified Part I

You guys know by now that I'm not keen on giving specific advice about what KIND of sleep-training method you should use. I've written over and over again that the method you choose does and/or SHOULD depend on so many factors: your parenting style, your child's temperament, your child's age, your cultural background, the social support you have, your work situation, your tolerance for sleep deprivation, your own and your child's emotional well-being, and so on. There are a few key points you need to keep in mind about sleep-training (the most critical of which, from my perspective, is the developmental stage… as if you needed me to tell you that AGAIN), but otherwise, most popular methods are going to give you reasonable results. I have been diligently doing the avoidance dance on the question: "But what do you REALLY think is the best method?" Because I REALLY don't think there is one. Having said that, there's no reason why we shouldn't talk a little about the actual advice out there from the "sleep gurus." So, to address several of your emails that have asked me to explain some of the top sleep-training techniques, I'm going to do a series of posts about the ones that are probably best known.

Let's start with Ferberizing, just because the question of "what is ferberizing and why should/shouldn't I use the method with my child" is probably the most common one I've received. I'll split this into parts: I'll first describe WHAT it is and then follow up with some pros and cons (much of this material is taken out of different parts of the book, so if you've read it, this will sound familiar). PLEASE feel free to throw your voice into a discussion about these methods. It's so important for parents to have multiple perspectives on success and failure stories with different methods. I think that's really the best way for you to figure out what might work best for your own unique family.

Contrary to misinterpretations and media-hype, Richard Ferber is not an advocate of the cry-it-out approach, although his name is most commonly associated with it.“Ferberizing” or "gradual extinction" is a deceptively simple method that uses basic behavioral principles to help babies gradually take on the task of putting themselves to sleep. It was actually developed as an ALTERNATIVE to the full-blown cry-it-out technique. Instead of allowing the baby to cry for however long it takes until he falls asleep on his own, Ferber advocates a gradual weaning of parental support.

The rationale for Ferber’s approach goes something like this: From around the age of 6 months, most children no longer need to wake up in the middle of the night to be fed (they can get all the nutrition they need during the day). So, at around this early age, you can begin teaching your child to put herself to sleep. Up to around this young age, if you’re like many parents, you’ve been rocking, gliding, nursing, singing and/or bouncing your infant for extended periods of time before she falls deeply asleep in your arms. Then, when your child finally drops off into a deep sleep, you ever-so gently lay her in her crib, taking great care to move your hands slowly from under her head and stealthily back out of the nursery. As you gingerly inch the door closed…your baby suddenly jolts from her slumber with a wail that could wake the dead. And then she is inconsolable and unable to go back to sleep. So… you start the process of rocking, gliding, nursing and bouncing all over again. The same thing happens 2 hours later when she wakes in the night, and an hour after that, and an hour after that. The problem, says Ferber, is that your baby has built up very particular sleep associations that include mother’s presence, lots of cuddling and lots of movement. All of these conditions are unavailable to the baby when she wakes or partially wakes in the middle of the night. Of course, she calls out for you so that you can yet again help her fall asleep with the props she’s grown used to. In essence, those children who fall asleep in one context (for example, on mama’s breast) and wake up in another (for example, alone in a crib) will start crying because they’re confused and scared and can’t bring back the context that put them to sleep in the first place. Ferber suggests imagining what it would feel like to go to sleep in your bed and wake up in the garage: disturbing to say the least. So the goal of Ferber’s method is for the parent to gradually transfer her extensive arsenal of sleep supports to the child herself.

 “Ferberizing” is a very simple method. It is SO not rocket science (so much so that I find it rather funny that it's become a verb and so many people find it controversial):
1.    Put your child in his/her crib sleepy, but still awake.
2.    Say your comforting good-nights and then leave the room.
3.    The child will usually begin to cry at this point if she is not used to being left alone to soothe herself.
4.    After an initial, short, predetermined duration (for example, after 3 minutes), return to the child. Pat the child, say soothing words, stroke her back or belly, but do not pick her up. Stay in the room for only 1 – 2 minutes and then promptly leave again.
5.    Increase the period of time that you leave the child to fuss or cry before you return to soothe her, always without picking her up (for example, return after 5 minutes, then 7 minutes, then 10 minutes and so on). Each time, leave the room after 1 – 2 minutes of soothing.
6.    Incrementally increase the duration of time you stay out of the room while your child attempts to put herself to sleep (or, as is often the case for the first day or two, cries her little head off). Eventually, she will fall asleep on her own.
After about a week or two, Ferber says that most babies will learn to soothe themselves both at bedtime and when they wake up during the night.

There are some pointers to maximizing the liklihood that this method will work for your child (we'll get to those next). And there are some caveats that I think should be made as well (in terms of ages, developmental stage, and temperament). We'll get to those in the third part. 

So, tell us: Have you tried this method? At what age? Did it work? If it did, what did you do to make it successful? If not, why do you think it wasn't for your family? Do you think Ferber is the spawn of the devil or should he be sainted?

9 thoughts on “A bunch of readers’ questions: Ferberizing demystified Part I

  1. My family did this without knowing that “Ferberizing” is what it was! I’ve heard so many bad things about it now that all I can do is be grateful no one told me before. There’s so much advice when you have a new baby and I took way to much of it to be “gospel”. Glad to know that ignorance is definitely bliss in this case.

  2. We did this at about a year. It worked in one night because we’d been doing more “gentle” sleep training up until then. I didn’t like it, but it was effective then and after major sleep disruptions — like vacation. It does work, and our family is better now that our toddler puts herself to sleep.

  3. We did this at 8.5 months and it took 2 days to get our daughter to not cry at all before going down. Even those first 2 days weren’t bad at all – she cried 3 mins, then for 5 minutes. I think the second day there was a third session of 8 minutes crying, but that was it. After her 7 PM bedtime, she slept through until 6 AM. We were astounded. Previously we’d be rocking her to sleep, waiting for the deep sleep, and then in ninja-like fashion, trying to back out of the room and avoid the squeaky floor boards in a house that is 85 years old!
    The 9 month sleep regression hit us at 10 months, and we had 2 months of pure h-e-double hockey sticks. Especially after 6 weeks of bliss. We went back to rocking her and sleep by any means necessary.
    We tried Ferber again at 14 months and it again took 2 days and has stuck. Sure, we have nights where it takes a lot longer but it’s always due to teething, and even then she is not happy with us holding her.
    The one thing I will say is that consistency is sooooo important. I’m often to blame for lack of consistency because her crying can make me so emotional, and I miss holding her while she sleeps. But all it takes is a “bad” night and I’m reminded that sleep training is for both of our benefits!

  4. I applied it to both my children, at 5.5 ( Mr. Easy) and 6.5 months ( Ms. Not So Easy) old. With my ‘easy’ child who had been sleeping great for months already but started waking up for what seemed no real reason, it took two nights for it to work. In hindsight, it wasn’t the best fit for him as he was (is) a tension increser, but I didn’t know that 4.5 years ago. Still it proved very efficient and he hasn’t suffered any long term damage from it ( she says laughing to herself).
    My daughter was the perfect candidate for Ferberizing as she is a tension releaser and even now at a little past 2.5, needs to wail for a while in order to get to sleep. There were results immediately with her and I was able to knock out the wake-up-every-40-minute routine at the beginning of the night after 2-3 tries. The waking up in the middle of the night took a bit longer, but by 7 months she was sleep trained and she was only waking for her ‘morning’ feed at around 5-5.30. And going to bed drowsy but AWAKE, which is something she continued to do even when other aspects of sleep trainig had worn off.
    Not only did my daughter’s night time sleep improve 500%, but so did her naps. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but she started sleeping 2-2.5 hours in the afternoon too. So BONUS!

  5. Honestly…I can’t imagine using it with my son. However he is a tension increaser and my own personality does not fit well with this method either.
    I find no fault with people who do use this method especially if they are consistant and do it at 6+ months old. That being said I do wish that people would attempt other “no cry” methods or more gentle methods first without this being the automatic go to for sleep training.

  6. I tried it. I also tried the Pantley method, the serious cry-it-out time, and nearly every other sleep training trick I could locate. And the first time my daughter slept through the night, she was 21 months old. Now, at 28 months, she sleeps through about five nights out of seven. She’s just a lousy sleeper, like me, and no amount of sleep training was going to help.
    I’m glad I had her first, though. Her younger sister is champion sleeper. I would have thought I was Queen of Sleep Training, had #2 been first, rather than understanding that it’s the luck of the draw.

  7. At 18 months we let our cry it out for 45 minutes without going back in (so, much harsher than Ferber–”total extinction”!). But I remain convinced that it was absolutely the right thing to do and I am now a believer in the sleep associations concept. Over the prior nine months we had gotten into a vicious circle of carrying him around for hours at a time so that he wouldn’t cry. By the time we let him CIO he was waking up every two hours and my husband was carrying him around for two or three hours a night … at least. Because, of course, we’d trained him to sleep while being carried around.
    I feel like a total and utter ass for letting it get that bad. I made some dumb choices and didn’t realize how abnormal things were. (Actually, the whole “sleep regression” concept really worked against me there, it allowed me to think our situation was normal, but that’s another topic.) But I think the technique we used was actually the kindest method of working out his sleep so that we could all recover. Knowing what I do about his personality, I think going back in, even for progressively longer periods, would have made it a lot worse for him as well as us. That “going back in and patting” thing never worked for us. And, after the second night (15 minutes of crying) he has slept through every night since, barring a couple exceptional situations. He’s now 2 1/2.
    (There was a lot of other stuff. We didn’t just plonk him down and say “see ya.” We totally revamped and structured his nap and sleep routine, gave him a buddy, the doulas we hired as sleep consultants did the first night for us, etc.)
    I am using some of Ferber’s ideas to shape my 3.5-mos daughter’s sleep habits so that we don’t get into that place with her; that is, the idea of slowly working on healthy sleep associations. She cries a little most nights, but not more than I’m comfortable with (maybe 5 minutes–and not full-on crying) and I feel like this time we’re doing what’s healthy for everyone from the start.

  8. Our 5 month old has always been put down to sleep and left on his own until he would cry or fuss and then we’d go in and reassure him and eventually he’d fall asleep. Ususally we are not in the room when he does fall asleep. We didn’t realize that we were applying this method, but after reading about it – we were. Now at 5 months old we don’t go in very often if at all. He falls asleep on his own. However I don’t think it really is anything we did or didn’t do. I think he is just a really good baby. He does not even cry when he wakes up at 4 a.m. for feeding, he just wakes up and you can hear him making little noises – and I go in and feed him and he eats his bottle and goes right back to sleep. No crying at all.

  9. I’m personally too squeamish to have ever tried Ferber out on my son (though knowing his personality, I don’t think he’s ever been a good candidate for it anyway). I feel like a lot of the “problems” associated with babies waking up all night could be solved if more parents were willing to co-sleep, quite frankly.
    Babies just don’t have adult-oriented sleeping habits, though I fully understand that the demands of a baby who doesn’t sttn are hard when both parents are working full-time – I have done my share of catching up on sleep the next day when my son’s been particularly nutty at night.
    And I say this after co-sleeping with one of the worst baby sleepers out there, who is just now, at 18 months, starting to be able to go back to sleep without the boob and with minimal patting on the back…sleep training is such a personal family decision, but sleep is treated as one of the first parental decisions that one can fail at (since the first question asked by everyone when you have a baby, is “are they sleeping?”).
    bkwyrm said it best – your child’s sleep habits are pretty much the luck of the draw, not what you do (or don’t do) as a parent.

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