Ferber Method – Getting Kids to Sleep through the Night

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Young boy fast asleep in bed

“Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems” by Dr. Richard Ferber, M.D. was one of the first sleep books to help parents get their kids to sleep through the night. Originally published in 1985, it was revised in 2006 and continues to be a bestselling parenting book.

But while many parents swear by Dr. Ferber’s book and the Ferber sleep training method, it is often misunderstood by others who think it simply advocates that parents leave their kids to cry alone all night.

There are many sleep books and methods that can help you get your kids to sleep better and fix their sleep problems, but the Ferber method is definitely one that you should consider.

The Ferber Method

The Ferber method is not simply a “cry it out” approach to getting your baby to sleep. Instead, like some “no cry” methods, Dr. Ferber’s methods will help you teach your baby to go to sleep and sleep all night without crying or with a minimum of crying.

Why are there so many misconceptions about the Ferber method?

It could be that many of the parents who don’t approve of Dr. Ferber’s book haven’t actually read it. And others only read parts of it, simply reading the part that talks about letting a child cry for short periods of time, but skipping the parts that talk about sleep stages, how to develop proper sleep associations and a good bedtime routine, and other things that would minimize crying and help your child:

  • fall asleep easily at bedtime
  • sleep all night
  • fall back asleep easily on his own if he does wake up in the middle of the night
  • take naps easily

Bedtime Routines and Sleep Associations

Sleep associations are the things that you child associates with falling asleep or how he is used to getting to sleep. Unlearning poor sleep associations and developing good sleep associations are two of the keys to the Ferber method and to a good night’s sleep.

Specifically, Dr. Ferber states that you should teach your child to fall asleep on his own and that he shouldn’t associate falling asleep with rocking, having his back rubbed, or with music on, etc.

Why is this important? If your child is used to falling asleep while you rub his back or while you lie in bed with him, then he will likely need that extra help to fall asleep again any time he gets into a light sleep phase in the middle of the night, as we all do, and fully wakes up. Children who have good sleep associations and who fall asleep on their own usually fall right back asleep without any help, or just keep sleeping, when they go into a light sleep phase.

So the first part of the Ferber method is that you make sure that you aren’t one of your child’s sleep associations and that you don’t hold, rock, or talk to your child as he goes to sleep, etc. Rubbing his back, letting him listen to music, or drink a bottle of milk or juice, or any other condition that you child can’t reestablish on his own in the middle of the night would be other poor sleep associations. Instead, teach your child to fall asleep on his own by having a consistent bedtime routine that ends with you saying goodnight to your child in his crib or bed while he is drowsy but still awake.

Progressive Waiting

The other big part of the Ferber method is the Progressive Waiting Approach to dealing with refusals to go to bed and waking up in the middle of the night or what some people think of as the “cry it out” part of the Ferber method.

Once you have eliminated any poor sleep associations, have developed a good bedtime routine, and understand the importance of putting your child to sleep by himself (good sleep associations), then you have to know what to do when he doesn’t want to go to bed or wakes up.

The Ferber method recommends that you let your child cry for progressively longer amounts of time before briefly checking on him. Keep in mind that your goal when you check on him is to simply reassure yourself that your child is okay and reassure your child that you are still nearby, and it is not to get him to stop crying or to help him fall asleep.

For example, on the first night you might check on your child after he has been crying for 3 minutes, 5 minutes, and then 10 minutes, with 10 minutes being the maximum interval if you have to keep checking on him, although the intervals would restart at 3 minutes if he wakes up again later. You would then increase the intervals by a few minutes again the next night, although Dr. Ferber states that you can be flexible with these intervals if you don’t feel comfortable waiting that long, as long you increase the intervals each time.

Using this method, Dr. Ferber claims that most kids are sleeping well by the third or fourth night.

Crying and the Ferber Method

So there is some crying when you use the Ferber method, but Dr. Ferber states that “only rarely will a child cry for several hours.” More typically, your child will fall asleep during one of the earlier intervals, which depending on the night, you are checking on him every 10 or 15 minutes.

Do kids cry when you use other methods to try and help them sleep better? Of course, they do. Even with a “no-cry” method, your child is still going to cry every time he wakes up. The difference with most of those methods versus the Ferber method is that they usually advocate that parents calm their child as soon as he starts crying, without any waiting period. But since the goal is to still teach your child to fall asleep on his own, even with these other methods, he will likely just start crying again when you put him back down in his crib or bed, or once you leave his room until he develops good sleep associations.

But keep in mind that the short periods of crying during the Progressive Waiting is not the same as letting a child “cry it out” all night until he falls asleep.

And if you add up all of the crying that your child now does when he wakes up in the middle of the night, especially if he keeps doing it for many more weeks or months, it will likely far exceed what he might do using the Ferber method. Also, most experts don’t think that this crying is harmful or that is out of fear, but rather because the child is frustrated that he can’t get to sleep.

Ferber Method Tips

The Ferber method works well if you follow the plan closely. When it doesn’t work, it is usually because a parent isn’t actually following the actual Ferber method, like for example they are letting their child cry without checking on them or they aren’t letting their child fall asleep on their own.

Another reason that the Ferber method sometimes doesn’t work is that a parent might be inconsistent with the method, using Progressive Waiting for a few days, but then giving in and rocking their child to sleep because they are so tired themselves.

To increase their chances of success with the Ferber method, you should:

  • Read all of Dr. Ferber’s book “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problem” before you even think of getting started.
  • Start during a time when you can afford to lose some sleep yourself.
  • Be consistent with the Ferber method once you get started, which means doing the same things at naps, bedtime, and if your child wakes up in the middle of the night.
  • Move your child’s bedtime to the time when he typically falls asleep. For example, if he has an 8:30 pm bedtime, but his bedtime routine gets dragged out to 9:30 pm with crying and your child getting out of bed, then move his bedtime later, saying goodnight and starting your Progressive Waiting at about 9:30 pm.
  • Learn to set limits, such as getting your child to stay in his room at night, not reading another bedtime story, or not getting him another drink of water once he is in bed, etc., which is another important part of the Ferber method.
  • Use stickers or other reward systems for older children who stay in bed and give up poor sleep associations
  • Consider using a countdown timer, like on an iPhone, as you apply the Progressive Waiting Approach.
  • Rethink your approach if you aren’t seeing improvement after three or four nights.

Dr. Ferber

Richard Ferber, M.D. is an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Parents wondering if they should trust Dr. Ferber’s methods should be reassured by the fact that he is also board certified in pediatrics and sleep disorders medicine and he is the director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital Boston, where he has been treating children with sleep problems since 1978.

Ferber Method Q&A

When Can You Start the Ferber Method? 

Dr. Ferber stresses that you shouldn’t start too young, but that you can likely start using these methods at around five months of age if your infant isn’t sleeping well since that is a time when many infants are able to sleep through the night.

When Should Babies Be Able to Sleep through the Night? 

Most infants can sleep through the night by the time they are about five months to six months old.

Is Sucking on a Pacifier a Good Sleep Association? 

Not usually, especially for toddlers and preschoolers, since if the pacifier falls out, then they likely will cry out for you in the middle of the night.

Is the Ferber Method for Everyone? 

No. Just like children have different temperaments, parents may have a temperament that would make another method better suited to them, such as Elizabeth Pantely’s “No Cry Sleep Solution” or “No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers.” Also, the Ferber Method of Progressive Waiting is mainly for kids who have poor sleep associations. It likely won’t work as well if your child is sleeping poorly for some other reason.

How Long Does the Ferber Method Take to Work?

Dr. Ferber states that you should usually see “marked improvement” in your child’s sleep “within a few days to a week.”

Is Dr. Ferber Against  Co-sleeping? 

No. Dr. Ferber seems to support whatever works best for a family and offers several advantages and disadvantages of co-sleeping. He does advise against cosleeping if you don’t want to and simply because you can’t get your child to sleep by himself.

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