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Baby Sleep Training with the Ferber Method.

Updated on September 4, 2016

Dr Richard Ferber’s baby sleep training method was controversial when his book was first published in 1985. Your Child’s Sleep Problems had child care experts and parents up in arms because they claimed it was ‘cruel’ and could ‘mentally scar’ a child.

The 1000s of parents who were using it however, said it worked well, and worked quickly without any ‘mental scaring’.

The book was revised and updated in 2006, so for a new generation of sleepless parents, here is a very condensed version of some of the things Dr Ferber talks about so you can make your own judgement.

What does the Ferber Method advocate?

Dr Ferber’s ideas centre on the concept that your baby needs to soothe himself to sleep and that he’ll do that when he is emotionally and physically ready. Ferber is keen to point out that his method doesn’t ‘teach’ baby to fall asleep but lets him reach his own conclusion that he can happily fall asleep without being rocked or having mum and dad near him.

This is an ideal method for parents who put their baby to bed when he’s asleep, or are used to sleeping with/staying in the room until he falls asleep. When you try to break the habit or put him into his own bed/bedroom, if you’ve found that he’s crying and upset, this method will help.

Ferber follows traditional baby sleep training methods in recommending a gentle and relaxing bedtime routine and putting baby to bed while he’s awake or sleepy but not asleep. He should then be left alone to settle down to sleep.

The next step is the tough one for parents as Ferber says that you should leave him even if he cries – which led to the method being called the ‘cry it out’ method. However he doesn’t advocate leaving your baby crying all night!

What he does say is that you should check on him regularly but increase the amount of time between each visit.

And don’t pick him up, feed or play with him on these visits as this acts as a ‘reward’ for crying. Instead simply stroke or pat him to soothe him for a short amount of time and then leave again. This conditioning helps him learn that cry doesn’t earn him a lot of attention and he’ll then fall asleep on his own.

How do I do the Ferber Method with my baby?

If you go straight to your baby when he cries after being put to bed you may have created a ‘demand-response routine’ which is what is making it hard for him to settle on his own. With any baby sleep training method this will get worse before it gets better because you need to break this pattern and baby won’t be happy! Expect to see (and hear) more tantrums, bedtime stalling tactics, crying and yelling before things start to improve.

The Ferber Method asks you to be consistent and strong in resisting the urge to ‘give in for a quiet life’, which can be challenging and distressing for all of you. However you’re probably reading this because you’ve had a long period without good sleep so:

  • Think about what giving in to tantrums teaches your little one – it will create more problems than it solves in the long term
  • You may already be finding your relationships and life in general more taxing because of your lack of sleep – this is short term pain for long term gain.

Ferber’s schedule for sleep training goes along these lines:

  1. On night 1 after your soothing bedtime routine, put your child to bed while he’s still awake, at his bedtime. If he cries then stay away for 3 minutes (use a kitchen timer if it helps regulate your time, but make sure baby can’t hear its alarm).
  2. Go in and briefly check him but leave him in his bed/cot, don’t pick him up or fuss him. Then leave again. This time stay away for 5 minutes.
  3. If he’s still crying, check in briefly and then leave, this time for 10 minutes.
  4. Repeat the 10 minute intervals until he’s settled or asleep.
  5. On night 2 and subsequent nights, gradually increase the time between your visits. So wait 5 minutes before you go in for the 1st time and 10 minutes before visit 2 etc.
  6. This gradual interval lengthening process continues until he successfully and consistently falls asleep alone.

Don’t use the Ferber Method for:

Ferber’s critics didn’t give concession to the fact that he is quite clear on the limitations of the method and where it is not appropriate.

It’s not suitable:

  • For babies under the age of 6 months as they need to be fed regularly in order to gain weight and grow.
  • If your baby/child is unwell then don’t use this method.
  • If he is experiencing night time fears, stressful daytime experiences such as a new school or change of home, nightmares or night terrors, sleep disordered breathing (sleep apnea), or sleep disorders resulting from international flight (ie jet lag) this method is not suitable.
  • If he has a learned vomit response to being left alone.
  • Children who are having problems with bedwetting.
  • If you are travelling or staying in an unfamiliar environment/with friends etc. You may have to be more flexible in your approach and ensure that all the adults who might attend the child know what you’re doing and your aims.

What should I expect from the Ferber Method?

Parents using this method of sleep training, and who use it consistently until they achieve success, say that their children:

  • Settle for the night within 10 minutes
  • Have fewer bedtime tantrums and upsets
  • Don’t wake them (the parents) as often
  • Sleep better and therefore behave better and have better moods.

How do I start with the Ferber Method?

  1. For a more complete picture and all the background information on the method, read the book – it’s available on Amazon.
  2. Set your expectations and talk to your partner. Share the work of checks and visits between you.
  3. Know that you’ll feel stressed and distressed when you hear your baby/child cry and are not going to comfort him. You might want to make a deal with your partner to reward yourselves when you achieve success – although a night’s unbroken sleep might be reward in itself!
  4. If you are separated from your child’s other parent and he spends time at the other parent’s home or with grandparents etc, make sure they know what you’re doing and how to proceed.

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