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What is the Ferber Method, and is sleep training safe for my baby?

Is sleep training using the Ferber Method right for your child? Learn more here

Tired parents
Image used with permission by copyright holder

One thing every parent has in common is sleep deprivation. No one really tells you before you welcome your bundle of joy just how sleepless your nights, days, and everything in between can be with a new baby in the house, but it doesn’t take long to learn the hard way. Getting your baby to sleep can be a struggle, which is why many parents choose to sleep train their baby, often using the Ferber Method.

The Ferber Method is named for Richard Ferber, M.D., a pediatrician who created the method in the mid-80s and based his 1985 bestselling book,  on his methodology. If you’ve been struggling with sleep deprivation and are eager to get just a few hours of uninterrupted sleep, sleep training may be something to consider.

What is the Ferber Method?

The Ferber Method, also referred to as “graduated extinction” is a method of sleep training that helps teach your child to self-soothe so they will eventually learn to go to sleep on their own and fall back asleep should they wake in the middle of the night. It involves putting your child to bed while they’re still awake and allowing them to fuss or cry for specified timed intervals before responding. Gradually, you begin to increase the amount of time you allow your child to self-soothe before checking on them.

Mother comforting a crying baby
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How does it work?

Being consistent and following the method will help you to be successful. The key here is to put your baby to sleep when they’re drowsy, but still awake, so they can experience falling asleep on their own. The first night you will put them down to sleep and check on them in timed intervals, starting with 3 minutes, then 5 minutes, and eventually 10-minute intervals. Each time you reassure your baby they are fine, but you don’t pick them up or feed them.

On the second day, you would then wait 5 minutes before your first check on them, followed by 10 minutes, and finally 12 minutes. On day three, you would wait 10 minutes before your first check-in, then 12 minutes, and finally 15 minutes for the remaining check-ins. Follow this routine of adding 2 to 3 minutes between intervals for a week, until you are at 20 minutes before your initial check-in.

Mom holding upset baby
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Is it right for you?

The Ferber Method has as many critics as it does fans. Although “Ferberizing” your child is different from those who choose a strict “cry it out” approach, which involves allowing your child to cry indefinitely until they fall asleep, it does require parents to allow their children to cry or fuss for a set period of time without intervention.

Sleep training a child isn’t for those who aren’t comfortable allowing their child to cry or who struggle with not responding when their child is fussy. “There’s evidence from an evolutionary standpoint that we are wired to respond to children’s cries,” Craig Canapari, M.D., director of the sleep medicine program at the Yale School of Medicine and the author of  explained to Parents. “This is a very deep drive, and it kind of goes against our natural inclination to ignore this.”

Parenting Science also suggests that the Ferber Method isn’t suitable for “children who have a conditioned fear of being left alone or who have a conditioned vomiting response.” They also note that this method doesn’t address many common problems of sleep disruptions, including certain medical conditions, night terrors, and disruptive sleep schedules.

Newborn baby girl crying
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Dispelling myths

The Ferber Method, and sleep training in general, is controversial for many, especially those who equate it with the “cry it out” method. Many detractors of the method believe that you put your child to bed at a set time and don’t see them until the morning, regardless of whether they cry or fuss, which is not how the Ferber Method works.

The core of Dr. Ferber’s method is teaching children how to fall asleep on their own and allowing them to self-soothe if they wake during the night. It does not advocate ignoring a child’s needs. Instead, it focuses on gradually allowing the child to fuss before a parent or caregiver responds, with the hopes that eventually the child will learn to put themselves back to sleep without the need for adult intervention.

Ferber suggests that it’s important for your child to learn to fall asleep on their own, so if they wake in the middle of the night, they are comfortable putting themselves back to sleep. If you’re consistently rocking your child or lying down with them until they fall asleep, they don’t know what to do when they wake up alone.

The Ferber Method also allows the parent or caregiver to soothe the child during regular intervals despite myths to the contrary. While this method suggests that parents don’t pick their children up when they fuss, it does suggest verbal soothing or even rubbing the child’s back to reassure them that all is well. These visits should only last a minute or two and should not involve any feeding or picking up of the child.

A mother reading her little baby a story
kryzhov/Shutterstock / a

When to begin sleep training

When it comes to “Ferberizing,” every child is different; however, most experts agree that sleep training should start around the 6-month mark. This is the age babies can typically sleep through the night without feeding and are able to soothe themselves should they wake up. Jeffrey Bourne, MD, tells the Bump that sleep training should also begin before a child reaches their first birthday. “After a year, they have a whole bunch of habits and patterns set and it can be harder to break them,” he explained.

A mother comforting a crying baby.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

How long does it take?

Ferber says you should see results by the fourth night of implementing his sleep training method. Dr. Canapari agrees, telling Parents that the second or third night is typically when babies will cry the most, which is called an extinction burst. “When you see that extinction burst, that’s when you’re on the cusp of improvement. I would usually say to people that, generally, the crying is going to be on the downslope and will get better three to four days after the intervention.”

It’s important to remember that sleep training won’t stop every outburst and that developmental milestones and other factors can disrupt sleep.

A baby in a sleep sack in their crib
Emilija Manevska / Getty Images

What to do if it’s not working

The Ferber Method isn’t for everyone and it’s important to know when to stop or try a different method. Consistency is key with the Ferber Method, but if after a week you still find yourself and your baby struggling, there’s nothing wrong with stopping and starting again at a later date. There are many other different methods of sleep training and parenting that may be a better fit, so it’s important to find the one that works best for you and your family.

The Ferber Method has helped millions of parents and their children get a good night’s sleep. If you’re ready to try something new when it comes to your bedtime routine, pick up a copy of his book or look for one of the Ferber Method sleep charts online and implement his methods. If this method isn’t something you’re comfortable with, you can stop at any time.

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Kelli Catana
Kelli is a freelance writer who has covered the world of entertainment, pop culture, parenting, and lifestyle for various…
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