Everything You “Know” About the Ferber Method is Wrong!

Ferber, Richard. Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (2nd ed) New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006

One Saturday afternoon I was sitting on a park bench watching my kids play in the sandbox, and listening in on other people’s conversations.  (I know you shouldn’t do this, but c’mon! Who doesn’t?) Two women were discussing diets. “I’m trying Atkins,” one said. “So you’ve read the book?” her friend replied.  A silence.  Then, “What book?”  It turned out the woman “trying Atkins” hadn’t actually read Dr. Atkins’ book on dieting. She was going to make some kind of dietary changes, but it was not the Atkins Diet.  She hadn’t read what Dr. Atkins had to say!

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This is pretty much exactly the same thing that happens with Dr. Ferber and his book. Most people who “try Ferber” have not read Ferber. They should.

Rescuing Ferber From the Critics

Ferber has come to be associated (incorrectly, in my view) with the so-called “cry-it-out” method of sleep training babies. “Ferberization” has come to mean leaving your baby to scream herself to sleep in the crib, while mom and dad cover their heads with their pillows. [By the way, how many pediatricians do you know whose names have been turned into verbs? Dr. Ferber is the only one I know of!].

The thing that has made Ferber most famous (or infamous, I should say) is Figure 5 at the end of Chapter 5 (in the first edition), entitled “Helping your Child Learn to Fall Asleep with the Proper Associations; number of minutes before going in to your child briefly”. What follows is a chart with number of minutes a parent should wait to re-enter a crying child’s room. If Figure 5, had been the only page in “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems”, the critics might have a point.

How many pediatricians do you know whose names have been turned into verbs?

But those who take the trouble to actually read Chapter 5 (called “Associations with Falling Asleep”), learn the following:ferber

  • The chart is not to be used for  sleep training
  • The chart is a guide for caregivers whose children have developed bad sleep associations
  • Ferber explains at length that “cry-it-out”  is not a method for getting children to sleep and he does not recommend it!
  • “[C]rying does not help in developing appropriate sleep associations…we try to keep crying to a minimum (p. 67, 1st edition)”

Be Fair

I believe it’s fair to say that most (all?) critics of Dr. Richard Ferber and his book “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems”, have never read the book! If Ferber should be famous (or infamous, if you insist), he should be known not for the cursed Figure 5, but for his “Pillow Story” he tells at the beginning of the Chapter.

“Think for a moment what it would be like if you had a normal waking during the night, turned over, and found your pillow gone. It would feel ‘wrong,’ and rather than simply returning to sleep you would wake more completely and begin to look for your pillow… what if your pillow was really gone? What if someone took it as a prank? It’s unlikely that you would simply go back to sleep…You might get angry, curse, and show the same type of frustration that a child shows when he cries.”

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The Association

In this one little story, Ferber crystallizes the overwhelming majority of childhood sleep problems: bad sleep associations. Ferber explains that the most common sleep difficulties are created when children fall asleep surrounded by one set of things (mom, breast, bottle, pacifier) and awaken at the end of a sleep cycle surrounded by another set of things (crib, blanket, no pacifier, etc). In other words, parents too often metaphorically prank their children and steal their pillows in the middle of the night.

Ferber’s Gift to the World

Ferber’s major contribution to the baby sleep literature is his thorough explication of sleep associations and how to develop good ones. Every major sleep expert in print acknowledges sleep associations: from Gary Ezzo and Gina Ford on the “parent-led” side of the spectrum, to William Sears and the “attachment parenting” crowd. You could say that all sleep training methods are variations on the theme of developing good sleep associations, and fixing bad sleep associations. All these methods are slightly different pathways to arrive at the same endpoint.

This is not to say that I agree 100% with everything Ferber has to say in his book. For my taste, Ferber insists too much that a baby needs to sleep in her own space starting some time during infancy. For most of human history, it was not possible for children to sleep apart from their mothers. For many millions today, this remains the case. It’s a minor quibble, however.

“Cry-it-out” may be a “sleep training method”, but no reputable authority that I know of recommends it. Oh wait! There IS one. It’s Luther Emmett Holt, who wrote a baby and child care guide that was all the rage when it was first published in 1894. Since Benjamin Spock led the revolution against “scientific pediatrics” in the mid-20th century, cry-it-out has been obsolete.

Ferber gets it right, in my view.  If you must read one sleep book (though you probably should read several), read Ferber.

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Rob Lindeman

Rob Lindeman is a sleep coach, entrepreneur, and writer living in Massachusetts. Ready to Get Rid of the Pacifier? Sign up for our FREE Video eCourse: The Paci-Free Method http://bit.ly/1U8Tdzx

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