The Ferber Method is a controversial method of sleep training that deserves a closer look. Welcoming a new baby into the family is a joyous occasion, but it does mean accepting the need for certain lifestyle changes. This is never more apparent than when it comes time to sleep. Babies do sleep quite a bit, but their sleep patterns are so irregular that it can keep you from getting the quality sleep you need. This is where the Ferber Method can help.
What is the Ferber Method?
Named after Dr. Richard Ferber, the Ferber Method is a type of sleep training that is commonly used by parents across the country. This method has similarities and differences to the popular “cry it out” and “controlled crying” sleep method. It essentially involves letting your child cry himself to sleep, so he will learn to sleep through the night. This can also be used to compel the baby to take longer naps. The Ferber sleep method is a training tool that will help your baby adjust to a normal routine of sleep and wakefulness.
It can become an issue for the whole family to let your baby cry for extended periods of time, so Ferber sleep methods employ timed schedules. The baby is left to cry for longer periods of time until he eventually adapts to being left alone. Many parents find that the Ferber Method is the most effective way of teaching a baby to adhere to a more normal pattern of sleep.
The ultimate goal of the Ferber Method of sleep training is to teach your baby to fall asleep without the help of the parents. This is the first step in helping the baby sleep throughout each night. Once your baby is able to fall asleep on his own through this type of sleep training, he will be able to sleep throughout the night just as well. Even when a sleep cycle ends and the baby awakens, he will be able to fall back asleep without crying out. Over time, your baby will sleep through the night without waking frequently.
What is the Ferber Method Controversy?
There is a difference of opinion among both parents and pediatricians concerning the effects that the Ferber Method has on infants. Addressing the controversy, many pediatricians suggest that Ferber sleep schedules be avoided until the infant is at least three months of age. That concern over this type of sleep training has to do with the needs of the infant rather than any long-term effects to the infant.
Prior to three months, babies often cry out as a means of expressing a need. For instance, they may still rely upon nighttime feedings at this young age or they may be in an uncomfortable position. Ignoring a younger baby’s cries can be a mistake, so parents are urged to avoid this type of sleep training until they’re older.
Is The Ferber Method Harmful?
The controversy surrounding the Ferber sleep method has been further ignited by the belief that the sleep training schedule can cause brain damage. There have been suggestions that allowing an infant to cry continuously can result in digestive problems or in damage to synapses in the brain. Some doctors recommend that parents should always respond to a cry, but not always by picking the infant up. There should be different types of responses to let the infant know his parents are close by, but also to help him learn to self-regulate sleep for himself.
Conversely, Dr. Craig Canapari disagrees that the Ferber Method causes harm to an infant. As an associate professor of pediatrics as well as a director of sleep medicine research at Yale University, Dr. Canapari is uniquely qualified to address the issues raised in this controversy. He says there’s no reason to believe allowing a child to cry out will have any physical effects on the child. He points out that infants and children frequently cry and it just doesn’t result in the physical harm that critics of the Ferber sleep method suggest.
Dr. Canapari adds that the Ferber Method is a type of strictly regulated sleep training that is very dissimilar from parental neglect. In this type of sleep training, the parent complies with a set schedule for responding to an infant’s cries, so the child will adjust to being left alone for longer intervals. In this way, the parent isn’t ignoring the infant, but is just waiting to give the infant time to calm himself.
Parents who are considering the Ferber Method should consult their pediatrician first. Following a specific schedule will give your sleep training efforts a better chance for success. For more information, please see our post dedicated to fixing your child’s sleep schedule. Additionally, babies with medical issues may not respond well to the Ferber Method and failing to respond to cries in unhealthy children can have negative effects on the infant’s overall health.
Starting Sleep Training with Your Infant
The best time to start sleep training is between four and six months. Although you can use the Ferber Method with children up to two years old, older children won’t respond as well to the process. Parents should also be aware that the third night of training is often the worst, so they shouldn’t expect to get much sleep on those nights. Instead of going to sleep, the infant will spend much of their bedtime crying out, because the sleep training experience is new to them.
Those nights that the infant cries the most are frustrating for parents and many parents give up after these two or three nights. However, this is known as the “extinction burst” and it’s actually a sign of improvement. Sticking with the Ferber Method after this period will allow you to see improvements in how well your infant goes to sleep. When you stick with the sleep training, you will notice that the crying gradually reduces over the ensuing three to four nights.
The most important thing to remember is that you and your partner have to be consistent. Altogether, the Ferber Method should take only a few days up to a week. However, letting an infant cry feels cruel to some parents and they often give in to their urge to pick the baby up. The results of this will be that the infant will learn that crying out will result in attention from one parent. Instead of going to sleep, as this method of sleep training is designed to enforce, the child’s crying will likely get worse. If you have been using the Ferber Method for more than a week, this is an indication that there’s a problem.
What Should a Ferber Method Sleep Schedule Look Like?
Although you and your pediatrician may alter the schedule to adapt to your unique situation, most Ferber schedules look similar. Below is a general schedule that may work for you with little or no modifications.
- First response – 3 minutes
- Second response – 5 minutes
- Third and subsequent responses – 10 minutes
- First response – 5 minutes
- Second response – 10 minutes
- Third and subsequent responses – 12 minutes
- First response – 10 minutes
- Second response – 12 minutes
- Third and subsequent responses – 15 minutes
- First response – 12 minutes
- Second response – 15 minutes
- Third and subsequent responses – 17 minutes
- First response – 15 minutes
- Second response – 17 minutes
- Third and subsequent responses – 20 minutes
- First response – 17 minutes
- Second response – 20 minutes
- Third and subsequent responses – 25 minutes
- First response – 20 minutes
- Second response – 25 minutes
- Third and subsequent responses – 30 minutes
You shouldn’t use the above schedule as a rigid rule, but rather as a flexible guideline. For instance, if you feel your child needs more time to adjust to the Day 3 schedule, try using it again on the following night. Once your baby responds better to that schedule, resume with the Day 4 on the following night. As long as you can observe improvement in your child’s sleep patterns, you can feel confident that the training schedule is working. Some infants respond more quickly to Ferber training, while other children take a little longer to adapt.
While the Ferber Method is commonly used by many families, it’s not always the best solution. If you have tried the method and have been consistent in applying it on a nightly basis, a lack of improvement may indicate that your child just isn’t responding well. There may be other reasons for the infant’s inability to fall asleep. In this case, it may be time to consult your pediatrician about the problem. He may examine your child and discover what is keeping him from sleeping. Your child’s doctor may also recommend an alternative sleep training routine that will be more effective with your baby.