Ferberizing demystified Part II: Some pros and cons to consider

As I mentioned in the first part of these posts on "ferberizing" or "gradual extinction," I'm not recommending this sleep-training method over any others. Instead, I think it's important for parents to understand their options and make their own choices based on whatever set of issues are important to them. Despite the heft of the book that describes Ferber's method, it isn't very complex. You can see from the comments on the last post that this technique has worked miracles for some families and has drained the life-blood from others. Thanks to all the parents that pitched in with their experiences. I think this kind of dialogue can be a fantastic resource for parents who are considering whether this is the sleep training method they want to try with their own child. Also, I wanted to thank you all for being so awesomely civil and supportive and generally non-judgmental. In my efforts to find other sites that provide forums that consider these sleep-training issues, I happened upon a few that were SCARY in terms of the venomous name-calling and downright nastiness. I am well aware that this topic can bring out our most judge-y sides, so I really appreciate the tone of everyone's comments.

With today's post I just wanted to add a few additional, more general considerations that you might want to think about if you're trying to decide whether this is the sleep-training method for your family. Some reasons to recommend Ferberizing first: Most importantly, unlike full-blown cry-it-out methods, parents can feel like they are reassuring their child as the child is trying to learn the ropes of falling asleep on his own. Because parents can start by checking on their child even after two or so minutes, increasing the duration from there, this approach often feels much more gentle than leaving the baby alone to cry himself to sleep. In fact, this method is probably meant to reassure the parent as much, or more than, the child during this difficult training process. Second, Ferber has a reasonable amount of empirical evidence to back up his claims that the method actually does work, and works for many children, if implemented correctly. Third, if you read the second edition of Ferber’s book, How to Solve your Child’s Sleep Problems, the author gives extensive information on how to first diagnose the barriers to getting your child to sleep on his own. As a result, you can tailor the gradual extinction method to match the needs of your own child.

And now some important downsides to think about: There are some good reasons to be cautious about this sleep-training technique. First, it does require the parent to ignore (or at least refrain from responding to) her baby’s cries. Although there’s a chance to return to the child at regular intervals, hearing the distressed cries of their young child just seems unbearable to some parents. As a result, many parents find it difficult to keep to a consistent schedule that maintains an ever-increasing duration between visits to the baby’s crib. Without this consistency, the method is likely to fail, and many parents will then give up, sometimes after just one or two days. Second, like all methods, it doesn’t work for all babies. For some babies, the repeated visits from the parent serve to increase frustration and result in escalations in crying. These may lead to uncontrollable sobbing and even throwing up. For those perhaps more sensitive children, implementing this method consistently won’t decrease the length of crying before sleep. Related, the distinction Moxie makes about tension increasers vs tension decreasers may be important to consider here. If your kid needs to cry to diminish some level of tension in his system before he can fall asleep, this method is probably suitable for him. If, on the other hand, your child tends to increase in tension as he cries and cannot, for love or money, ever bring himself down from those levels of arousal, then this method may not suit him. Finally, the age of your child might be really important to think about. This method may work best for children younger than about 16 months. As we've talked about frequently on this blog, after children hit the 18-month stage transition, they “wake-up” socially, separation distress peaks again, their language skills become sophisticated and they are emotionally much more complex than ever before. As a result, they may not “fall for” the Ferberizing method in the same way that younger children do (although Ferber does provide some interesting extensions to his method for older kids). Given their increased working memory capacity, older children may realize that, no matter what, mom will return eventually, especially if they stay awake and cry. So, the usefulness of this method may be limited to the first year and a half of life.

What other factors do you think influences how appropriate this method is for children? 

OH! And tune in next week: I want to tell you about some of my plans for this blog and maybe start a discussion about how to improve this space in the next couple of weeks. I'm actually quite excited about this new stage (Um… yeah, so obviuosly I'm sticking around. Yeah!)

3 thoughts on “Ferberizing demystified Part II: Some pros and cons to consider

  1. I love how I have a question in my head that I need to email and ask, but before I do, you answer it. One of the things I’ve been wondering was whether kids tend to respond to different sleep training methods differently depending on age. You sort of answered it for Ferber, that older children don’t respond as well to the the whole checkin’in thing as younger children do. I would like to see that addressed in other sleep training methods analysis, if you do more.
    Anecdotally, we went with Weissbluth’s method with the older kid and we were happy, until we finally hit a state where he had no trouble screaming for 3 hours and then it’s morning, and time to get up. (10 months) That’s when we switched sleep methods. With the baby kidlet, we started with Dr. Sears’ wear baby to sleep all the time to Weissbluth, and we are fast approaching the will-cry-for-hours-oh-wait-it’s-morning capabilities, so we will be switching. Since the time is so similar, we wondered if there was a correation.

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