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Who is Richard Ferber?
Pediatrician Richard Ferber is the founder and former director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital in Boston. Since the publication of his book Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems in 1985, he's become known as a leading – and controversial – expert on children's sleep.
Chances are you've heard about Ferber's method of teaching babies to soothe themselves to sleep – a method so closely associated with him it's often called "Ferberizing." This method and its variations are also referred to as "cry it out," although Ferber himself never calls it that.
Over the years, Ferber's method of sleep training has sparked controversy among parents, pediatricians, and sleep experts alike: Some swear by the Ferber approach, while others claim that it creates lifelong emotional scars. It's also often exaggerated and misunderstood. (See "Ferber's method: Facts and fiction," below.)
An updated and expanded version of Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems, published in 2006, has continued to keep Ferber and his approach to sleep in the public eye.
What exactly is the Ferber method?
In a nutshell, Ferber says you can teach your baby to soothe himself to sleep when he's physically and emotionally ready, usually between 3 and 5 months of age.
He recommends following a warm, loving bedtime routine and then putting your baby in bed awake and leaving him (even if he cries) for gradually longer periods of time. Putting a child to bed awake, says Ferber, is crucial to teaching him successfully to go to sleep on his own.
Parents are instructed to pat and comfort their baby after each predetermined period of time but not to pick up or feed their baby. This routine is called "progressive waiting."
The suggested waiting time, which Ferber charts in his book, is based on how comfortable you are with the technique, how many days you've been using it, and how many times you've already checked on your child that night.
The theory goes that after a few days to a week of gradually increasing the waiting time, most babies learn to fall asleep on their own, having realized that crying earns nothing more than a brief check from you.
Ferber's method: Facts and fiction
Ferber says you should let your child cry it out alone in her crib until she falls asleep.
Ferber never says you should simply leave your baby in her crib and shut the door behind you. His progressive waiting approach allows you to gradually limit the time you spend in your child's room while providing regular comfort and reassurance – as well as reassuring yourself that she's okay.
Ferber encourages parents to let their child cry until she throws up.
This charge is often leveled against Ferber as evidence that his method is callous. It's true that a baby who cries long and hard enough may vomit, but this is unusual. Ferber's point is that even if your child vomits, it shouldn't deter you from sleep training.
His advice? Matter-of-factly clean up your child then leave the room. Ferber believes that a tantrum or an extended period of crying alone won't hurt a child in the long run.
Ferber says his method will work quickly and easily for everyone.
Ferber believes his approach is effective but never claims that it's easy. Ideally, the method works in a few days to a week, but Ferber acknowledges that's not always the case. His book has plenty of suggestions about what to do if the program isn't working and encouragement for parents who find the process difficult.
Ferber says you must never, ever deviate from a set sleep schedule.
Sticking to a routine is fundamental to Ferber's method, but he acknowledges that inevitably there will be times when you'll have to be flexible – like if your child is sick, or when you're traveling or have a babysitter. If your baby's sleep schedule has been disrupted to the point that she's waking up again at night, you may have to start the process all over again.
What's new in the revised version of the book?
When the 2006 edition of Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems came out, it was rumored that Ferber had reversed his earlier approach, but that isn't true. The new book reiterates a lot of what Ferber wrote in the earlier volume and now includes some important clarifications and additions:
- Cry it out. In the preface of the revised book, Ferber takes pains to clarify his position: "Simply leaving a child in a crib to cry for long periods alone until he falls sleep, no matter how long it takes, is not an approach I approve of. On the contrary, many of the approaches I recommend are designed specifically to avoid unnecessary crying."
Ferber's progressive waiting technique encourages parents to comfort their child frequently during the sleep training process.
- Sleep sharing. In the original edition of the book, Ferber was firmly opposed to the concept of parents and children sleeping together, saying, "We know for a fact that people sleep better alone in bed." He also maintained that learning to sleep alone is an important part of a child's healthy development. In the revised edition, Ferber is far less rigid on the subject.
Children who share their parents' bed, he says, "are not prevented from learning to separate, or from developing their own sense of individuality, simply because they sleep with their parents. Whatever you want to do, whatever you feel comfortable doing, is the right thing to do, as long as it works."
Editor's note: Bed-sharing is not without risk. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend putting infants 1-year-old and younger in the same bed as adults because of the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and suffocation or strangulation (which can happen if the infant becomes wedged or trapped in the bed). Instead, the AAP suggests that adults and infants share a room but not sleeping surfaces. This can reduce the risk of SIDS by as much as 50 percent.
- Naps. The 2006 edition includes an entire chapter on the subject.
- New information. The revised book offers updated information about children's sleep requirements, sleep apnea, and other issues based on new research and scientific findings since the book was first published.
- More flexible approach. Ferber's tone in the updated volume is a little warmer and more relaxed. Working with families over the years has taught him that a wide range of approaches to sleep can work. In the updated book, he encourages parents to adapt his program to the needs of their particular child and family culture.
Why is Ferber's approach so controversial?
Not all parents and parenting experts believe it's okay to leave an infant alone to cry, even for a few minutes. "No cry" advocates consider Ferber's approach harmful to children and argue that it could undermine a child's sense of security in the world.
Some of the controversy surrounding the Ferber method also springs from widespread misunderstanding about what his method actually involves.
Can I modify the Ferber method?
Absolutely. If you want to try the Ferber method but find it too rigid, use a more gradual approach.
For instance, you can stretch out Ferber's seven-day program over 14 days so that you increase the wait between checks every other night rather than every night. Also, you can be flexible when needed: If your child is sick or feeling uncomfortable, take a break from the method and try again when she feels better.