If you’ve even dipped your toe into the vast waters of the sleep training literature, you’ve probably heard of Dr. Richard Ferber and the “Ferber method.” He’s famous enough to even have had his name turned into an adjective and noun: You might hear about “Ferberization” or a baby who has been “Ferberized.” But if you’ve actually bought a copy of Ferber’s most famous book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, you might be dismayed to find it clocks in at nearly 500 pages. When you’re only sleeping four non-consecutive hours a night, the idea of reading a 500-page book sounds like a cruel joke. Sleeping through the night sounds like an elusive dream.
Luckily, the Ferber sleep training method — sometimes called “graduated extinction” — isn’t nearly as intimidating as it might sound. The book itself is a great resource, but it’s so long because it covers things like narcolepsy or sleep walking, not just the sleep training method for which Dr. Ferber is most famous. Dr. Ferber was the founder of the Sleep Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, and is still a practicing physician today, so the book covers the vast array of children’s sleep problems, most of which your kid won’t have. If you’re looking up the Ferber Method, chances are good you probably have a pretty common problem: Your infant isn’t falling asleep without lots of help from you, or they’re popping awake at night, ready to play. It might be a straightforward problem, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel totally miserable when you’re living through it. Deciding that you’re ready to sleep train can be a gift to exhausted parents. Luckily, Ferber’s sleep training method does help lots of infants, and, importantly, their parents, get the sleep they desperately need.
What is the Ferber Method of sleep training?
One of Ferber’s most important insights was what he calls “troublesome sleep associations.” If a baby falls asleep while being rocked or nursed, they expect and want that rocking or nursing to continue as they cycle between light and heavy sleep.
“When children fall asleep in one situation—cuddling, nursing, bouncing, feeding — and we sneak them into the bassinet and sneak out the door — they very reasonably get upset about it,” explains Alexis Dubief, author of the ever-popular sleep-training guide Precious Little Sleep. The Ferber method seeks to help your baby get used to falling asleep in the environment that they’re going to stay in throughout the night — the crib or the bassinet, and not your arms. If they’re used to falling asleep with a lot of help from you — bouncing, cuddling, feeding — that change can involve some crying as they adjust. Dr. Ferber’s method involves what he calls the “progressive waiting” approach to making this chance. If you’ve tucked your baby in and they’re crying, you can check back in with them at periodic intervals. These checks serve two purposes: To assure them that you’re still there, and to reassure yourself that, as upset as they sound, there’s nothing really wrong.
The Ferber Method: it is harmful for babies?
The Ferber Method is a relatively gentle form of sleep training or “sleep learning” as some call it, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has stated that sleep training is safe and effective for babies, and counsels parents to “not rush in and soothe a crying baby.”
Baby sleep experts agree. “The studies the attachment parenting contingent will point to to say that sleep training is harmful are not sleep training studies,” explains Dubief. It’s certainly harmful for children to grow up in a crib with extremely minimal adult interaction, or to never have their cries responded to, but that’s not what the Ferber Method, or any other sleep training method, advocates for.
Ferber’s method, in fact, is a slightly gentler version of the sleep training method more typically called “cry-it-out.” While the Ferber Method does involves some crying, the check-ins can be helpful for parents who are having trouble with the idea of simply closing the door and walking away. “If it feels wrong to you not to go into the child’s room, you should go—this is your child, and you have to feel OK with whatever you do,” Dubief says.
Ferber Method chart
Ferber’s book includes a table of how long to go between check-ins: he recommends starting with very frequent check-ins and moving towards lengthier periods of time.
On the first night of Ferber Method:
- Wait 3 minutes before going in the first time
- 5 minutes before going in a second time
- 10 minutes before going in a third time
- 10 minutes before going in any subsequent times
On the second night of Ferber Method:
- Wait 5 minutes before going in the first time
- 10 minutes before going in a second time
- 12 minutes before going in a third time
- 12 minutes before going in any subsequent times
The third night of Ferber Method:
- Wait 10 minutes before going in the first time
- 12 minutes before going in a second time
- 15 minutes before going in a third time
- 15 minutes before going in any subsequent times
With any sleep training method, including Ferber, Dubief notes you should expect to see “rapid, unambiguous improvement” within three days.
What age is appropriate for the Ferber Method?
Even Dr. Ferber himself is a bit ambiguous on this point; he notes in the book that “it is difficult to give a precise answer to this question” but shares the general guideline that this method works at about 3-4 months. In general, parent should wait to begin any sleep training method until their child is between 4-6 months of age, says Dr. Craig Canapari, director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center. “I don’t love cry-it-out methods after a year of age,” Canapari notes. So, 4-12 months is the sweet spot for cry-it-out and for the Ferber Method. If you’ve missed that window, and have an older child with sleep problems, there are still options, which usually start with figuring out how much sleep your toddler or older kid needs and finding a good schedule that will meet those needs.
How to handle night wakings with the Ferber Method
Some babies will cooperatively fall asleep without much fuss, but then, a few hours later, they’re awake and expecting to party or to at least eat. If you’re trying to do the Ferber Method of graduated extinction, night wakings can be confusing. Do you still do timed checks? Canapari lays out two options for parents: Soothe your baby back to sleep, or, yes, resume the Ferber method with timed check-ins. The latter, he notes, is “faster, but harder on parents.” Ferber’s book also addresses the issue of night wakings, and recommends resuming the schedule of checks on the same schedule that you did for the initial bedtime.
So, practically, for example: If you’re on the first day, you would go in for a night waking after 3 minutes of crying, then 5, then 10. You should be seeing a decrease in night wakings after a few days of doing the Ferber Method, though.
How long do you stay in the room with the Ferber Method?
Ferber recommends not staying in the room for very long — one or two minutes — and, crucially, that you don’t pick up or rock your baby when you’re there. You’re there simply to assure your baby that you haven’t left the home and that you still exist and to comfort yourself that they are just fine (despite some tears). Any more than a minute or two can interfere with the ultimate goal: Getting your baby learn to self-sooth and fall asleep without any problematic sleep associations.
The Ferber method and naps
While you can use the Ferber method for naps (and Ferber’s book offers guidance for how to do so) Dr. Canapari urges parents using any “extinction” method of sleep training to focus their energies on bedtime: “Overall I encourage parents to just worry about bedtime when doing an extinction method. — e.g. just soothe your baby for naps and middle of the night awakenings.” The point of the Ferber method is simply to help your baby break the associations that they’re requiring in order to fall asleep, like nursing or being rocked by you. Once Baby has figured out how to self-soothe at bedtime, they’re set up for success with both naps and night wakings, even if you’re helping soothe them through those transitions.
Whether you decide to Ferberize your baby or not, the process isn’t super mysterious. It’s basically helping your baby fall asleep without you, while assuring them that you’re always there.