Why the “Ferber Method” worked for us – Part II

In Part I of this two-part series, I explained all about our sleep struggles. Winston was not born a good sleeper, but I suspect that most babies out there aren’t either. We tried co-sleeping (worked for a few months) and putting him to sleep in his swing (worked for a few weeks), before we realized we needed to do some formal sleep training, so he could fall asleep on his own, in his crib.

During my frenzied internet searches (things like “why won’t my baby sleep” and “how can I convince my child to sleep in his crib”), I came across what is known as the “Ferber Method” from the book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Dr. Richard Ferber. There is so much misconception out there about the “Ferber Method”, probably due (at least on my part) to the very popular movie “Meet the Fockers“. Here’s a quote from a scene between Jack (Robert Di Nero) and Greg (Ben Stiller):

Greg: That baby might need a pull on that knocker of yours, Jack.

Jack: It’s OK. We’re Ferberizing him.

Greg: What?

Jack: The Ferber method. You let him cry it out so he doesn’t depend on coddling.

That scene, especially in the larger context of the movie and Jack’s character as a stern, uptight, unaffectionate man, had me convinced that the “Ferber method” was cruel, outdated, and not something I wanted to use with my baby.

But then I did a lot of internet research, talked to other moms (including my own, who “Ferberized” me nearly 30 years ago!), and –gasp– actually read the book. Here is what the Ferber method is not:

  • cry it out
  • anti-cuddling
  • mean
  • selfish
  • a perfect, end-all-be-all solution

I should also stop here and explain that the book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, covers so much more than getting your baby to sleep in their crib, which Dr. Ferber refers to as “eliminating sleep associations”. There are also chapters on sleep in general (including sleep cycles and why babies sleep the way they do), sleep stages, sleep regressions, night terrors, middle of the night feedings, schedule disorders, naps, and how to deal with jet lag – basically, if it has to do with sleep, this book covers it.

Our main issue, however, was getting Winston to fall asleep on his own, in his own space (his crib), without “sleep crutches” or “sleep associations” such as being held, being rocked, or being nursed to sleep. This is covered in-depth in Chapter 4 of the book.

Here’s a brief overview of what the Ferber method is: By the age of three or four months (adjusted for gestation age), your child can, and should, learn to fall asleep on his/her own, without outside help. To accomplish this, you put your child in his/her crib at an appropriate bedtime (he helps you calculate when this should be), after a soothing and loving bedtime routine (he has suggestions on that too), and leave the room. If/when your child cries, you wait a set interval of time before going in and reassuring your child (and yourself!) that everything is fine. Ideally, this is done with a pat on the back and some comforting words, rather than picking up the baby. Then you leave again. If/when your child cries, you wait a longer interval of time, and repeat the process. On the third time, you have reached your “max wait” and use that time for all successive rounds until your child falls asleep. Each night, you increase the wait time until your child falls asleep on his/her own.

The successively longer wait times are to let your child know that they are not alone, that they are still loved, that you are still there to support them, and to reassure yourself that your child is ok, but that they can and should be falling asleep on their own, without your help.

The science behind this method is that you want your child to fall asleep under the exact same circumstances that will be present when he/she invariably wakes up in the middle of the night. The example Dr. Ferber uses is to imagine you fall asleep with a pillow, but in the middle of the night while you are sleeping, someone comes and takes away your pillow. You might not wake up when the pillow is taken, but you will wake up at some point in the night (as we all do), and instead of being able to fall seamlessly back asleep, you realize that your pillow is gone. You wake up fully, searching for your pillow. You may even get out of bed to try and find it. Instead of transitioning smoothly between one sleep cycle and the next, you are disturbed and uncomfortable, and completely unable to fall back asleep. But if you were to go to bed without a pillow in the first place, it might be a tough transition at first, but over the course of a few nights, you would get used to the new normal and sleep just fine.

To put this in practical terms, if your child falls asleep nursing, or while being held, then you transfer them to their crib, when they wake up in the middle of the night, rather than going back to sleep on their own, they will want/need to be nursed or held again. This requires your intervention, and everyone gets less sleep. But once your child learns to fall asleep on their own, they will be able to move easily between sleep cycles, barely aware that they are awake at all. Everyone gets more sleep, and isn’t that the dream of every parent?

Here’s how the Ferber method worked in our house – on the first night we waited 3, 5, and 7 minutes. On the second night, we waited 5, 7, and 10 minutes. On the third night, we waited 6 minutes, and Winston was asleep!

I’m not going to lie. The first night was Rough. Although Winston only cried for about 30 minutes total (which is less time than he normally cried at bedtime!), having to stand outside the door and wait for the time to pass was heart-wrenching. Going in to pat him on the back and tell him I loved him, then leaving and hearing his cries was like being punched in the gut repeatedly. Looking back, I know sleep training was the best decision we made, and I know that teaching Winston good sleep habits is one of the best gifts I can give him, but at the time I felt like a selfish, wretched monster.

Night two was a little better. He cried for a total of 20 minutes, and as I saw some improvement, I began to think that maybe we’d make it through sleep training after all.

Night three he cried for 6 minutes before falling asleep. We didn’t even have to go back into his room after we put him down in his crib! I was so happy and so relieved, that I started crying. By night four we had cut the crying (which was really more like fussing) down to a mere 5 minutes and I started thinking that maybe I’d eventually be able to enjoy bedtime like a normal parent.

I don’t want you to think that this was the end-all-be-all solution to all our sleep problems. We still have times when Winston randomly screams his head off for no reason, or when he wants eat three times in the middle of the night, or when he wants to get up at 4AM to party, or when he refuses to fall back asleep. But most nights, he goes to sleep between 6:30 and 7:30 at night and sleeps until 6:30 or 7:30 the next morning. He’s one of those babies that seems to need to fuss a little before he can fall asleep, but usually he fusses for no longer than a few minutes.

Of course, now that we know Winston can and does fall asleep in his crib on his own, when he doesn’t fall asleep within ten minutes of fussing, or when he wails like a banshee when he’s in his crib (like last night, for example), we know something is off. He no longer needs our help to fall asleep, so he’s usually crying for another reason. Last night he was still crying pretty forcefully after ten minutes, so I went in, picked him up, sang him another lullaby, and nursed him again before putting him back in his crib. After that, he fussed for a few minutes before falling asleep. Winston has been sick the past few days, and I rightly assumed that he wanted more snuggles before bed.

One thing I’ve learned is that my husband and I know our baby better than anyone, and we need to trust our guts. Sometimes Winston needs to fight it out on his own in his crib (if we can tell he’s overtired, or struggling to get comfortable), but some nights he needs a little extra cuddling, and that’s ok. Some nights he surprises us with how easily he falls asleep, and some nights we’re staring at the baby monitor, silently pleading with our child to fall asleep already! Parenting is a constant adventure, after all.

Overall, though, the guidance in Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems has helped us have more good nights than bad, and for that I am infinitely grateful. What are your favorite tips for getting your child to sleep? Did you do some sort of formal sleep training? Do you have a favorite bedtime routine?

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