Helping Baby Sleep with the Ferber Method.

The Ferber method for helping babies ‘learn’ how to sleep has been a controversial one.  Some parents saying it’s worked wonders for them (it can work in a few days to a week) and others saying it’s unkind to children and could emotionally scar them.

The bottom line on the latter point is that experts agree there needs to be more research into the method as there is no evidence to suggest this is the case.

What is the Ferber method?

Dr Richard Ferber is a paediatrician and founder of the Center for Paediatric Sleep Disorders at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, USA.  His 1985 book Your Child’s Sleep Problems was revised in 2006 and in the intervening 20 years he’s been a controversial authority on children’s sleep.

His philosophy is that baby needs to soothe herself to sleep and will learn to do so when she’s physically and emotionally ready.  This is usually at around 6 months of age.

It doesn’t teach her to fall asleep but instead lets her come to understand that she can happily and safely fall asleep by herself.

The Ferber method involves a gentle and soothing bedtime routine, putting baby to bed while she’s awake and leaving her to settle.  This is common practice recommended in most sleep training routines but the difference with the Ferber method is that he asks parents to leave the child even if she cries, returning to check on her at progressively longer intervals.  This has lead the method to be called the ‘cry it out method’.

When parents go to check on the child they should pat, stroke or comfort her without picking her up or feeding her.

This way she learns that crying only earns a brief check rather than a lot of attention and is conditioned to fall asleep on her own.

When should the Ferber method NOT be used?

Critics of the method didn’t take into account the instructions and limitations Ferber made clear in his original (and updated) book.

  • This method is not suitable for small babies under the age of 6 months.  Little infants have small stomachs and need to be fed regularly in the night in order to thrive.
  • It’s not for children who have a fear of being left alone.  This is often a conditioned response and needs specialist help to overcome it.  Talk to your paediatrician or general doctor.
  • It’s not suitable if a child is sick/unwell.
  • It’s not suitable for sleep problems that cause the child to wake.  These include:

Stressful daytime experiences

Night time fears

Children who have nightmares

Sleep disordered breathing such as snoring or sleep apnea

Circadian rhythm disorders.

How does the Ferber method work?

This type of sleep training works on the basis that the infant has learned to depend on mum and dad soothing her to sleep. When this ‘demand-response routine’ (ie she cries and you go to straight to her) is changed she will cry and holler, throw tantrums and use stalling tactics at bed time.

Ferber asks parents to resist the urge to give in, which will be hard for you.  However consider 2 points that may help to strengthen your resolve:

  1. Giving in to tantrums etc will reinforce the behaviour and create more problems in the short and long term
  2. The time you’ve already spent awake with a child who doesn’t sleep easily will impact on your health and relationships with your partner and your child.

Consistency is key and sticking to the schedule.  It goes like this:

On the first night of sleep training, after your soothing bedtime routine and putting your child to bed while she’s awake, if she cries you stay away for 3 minutes.

Then check her briefly – but don’t pick her up etc – and leave again.

Stay away for 5 minutes if she still cries; check her briefly; leave again for 10 minutes.

Repeat the 10 minute interval visits until she falls asleep or is settled.

On the nights that follow you can gradually increase the time between visits – 5 minutes until your first visit, 10 minutes before the second and 12 minutes thereafter etc.

Continue this gradual lengthening of time between checks until you have success.

What should I expect?

  • Before you start, set your expectations and share the work load of checks and visits with your partner if you can.
  • Be aware that the time between visits will seem very long and you’ll feel stressed because you’re used to soothing your little one.
  • If you are travelling or visiting friends/having a baby sitter you may need to be more flexible with the training, but ‘flexible’ doesn’t mean giving in.  Be sure that all the adults and carers for your child know what you’re doing and their role in the training.
  • Parents of children who have gone through this method report that their kids:

Have fewer bedtime tantrums

Usually settle to sleep within 10 minutes

Are less likely to wake their parents at night

Have better daytime mood and behaviour – probably because they’re sleeping better and so are their parents.

For a more complete picture of the Ferber method, in-depth instructions and more ideas, read the book.  It’s available on Amazon.

Buy the revised edition of the book at Amazon.com:

Buy the revised edition of the book at Amazon.co.uk:

Elspeth Raisbeck

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