The Ferber Method Demystified

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Nothing could have prepared me for the extreme exhaustion that accompanied being a new parent. I was so tired that I could barely function. There wasn’t enough caffeine in the world to keep me going and I knew the sleepless nights had to end. When I first heard about the Ferber method, it just sounded too good to be true.

The more research I did on the Ferber method, the more overwhelming it seemed. But when I finally bit the bullet and put it into action—well, it was more than worth it. If you’ve been considering the Ferber method as a solution to your baby’s sleep schedule, here’s everything you need to know.

What Is The Ferber Method?

The Ferber method is a sleep training method that was developed in the 1980s by a doctor named Richard Ferber. This method of sleep training is considered a cry-it-out method.

A key component of the Ferber method is encouraging sleep association. In this case, sleep association is where your child begins to identify things that happen during the time that leads up to sleep. If a child is woken in the night, they will look for these indicators to soothe them and bring them back to sleep.

For instance, if you always hold your baby prior to sleep, or you nurse your baby before sleep, a tired baby is going to ask for those things. The Ferber method helps support the creation of a new routine that allows your baby to be able to prepare themselves for sleep.

According to Richard Ferber’s theory, the best way to navigate this portion of sleep training is to allow the child to “cry it out.” This isn’t always a comfortable thing for a parent to do, but it can help your child learn how to soothe themselves more quickly.

When To Start The Ferber Method?

Your baby was probably only a few days old when you first started wishing for that full night’s sleep. While it may be tempting to begin sleep training at an early age, the truth is, it’s not recommended for babies under the age of four months.

Children younger than four months don’t have the ability to go for long periods between feedings. By the time your child has reached four months old, they’ve dropped many of their nighttime feedings and they can go for longer sleep stretches.

Even then, four months can be a little too early to move forward with the Ferber method. For the best results, wait until your child reaches six months of age, to begin with the Ferber method. This can help prevent a negative association with the sleep training process. It may seem counter-intuitive, but waiting a little longer in the beginning may actually result in quicker overall sleep training.

When To Sleep Train With The Ferber Method

Once it’s time to begin sleep training, you will want to take the following steps to implement the Ferber method.

baby sleeping

Create A Bedtime Routine

You can start as early as six weeks, but it’s never too late to introduce a routine. You’ll want to follow this routine as closely as possible every night for the best results.

Traditional bedtime routines include baths, a bottle or nursing, and a book. Your routine may vary, though, and that’s alright. The most important thing is that you choose calming activities that always happen in the same order. These events will become signifiers for your baby. Eventually, they will learn that these events culminate in sleep.

The idea behind the Ferber method is that this bedtime routine becomes so ingrained that they anticipate and even welcome sleep. Your hope is that this will help make bedtime less of a difficult transition for your baby.

You’ll need to have this routine well established before you actually begin the Ferber method. Think of this as the foundation for your baby’s future sleep habits.

Keep Your Hours Consistent

There are bound to be special circumstances every now and again. As a general rule, though, you should aim to have your baby keep the same hours. Encourage your baby to wake at the same time, regardless of what’s on your agenda. Then, make sure your baby is heading to bed at a consistent hour.

This will help lock your baby into a regular wake-sleep cycle. This will work in your favor when it’s time to move forward with the Ferber method. Just like with the bedtime routine, this is part of the necessary sleep foundation you need to put in place.

During the day, you’ll want to keep as much of a routine as possible as well. This will help your child learn how to process their day and behave accordingly.

Implement The Ferber Method

When your child is ready to move forward with sleep training, make sure they have a sleep-appropriate and safe crib. It’s important that this crib is a place your child is comfortable in. If necessary, allow your child small intervals of happy time in the crib before moving forward with sleep training.

When you put your child into the crib at bedtime, it should be dark and quiet. Remember to bring your bedtime routine all the way to the last moment. A final kiss or pat and a “goodnight” from the doorway can go a long way in a bedtime routine.

Check In On Your Baby

Babies cry. If your baby is crying in the crib, go into the room to physically check on them. Begin with short intervals and slowly let that amount of time increase.

Start with every 3 minutes. Work your way up to 5 and then 10 minutes. Every day you’re using the Ferber method you’ll be able to increase the amount of time that happens between check-ins. This is referred to as gradual or graduated extinction.

When you’re checking in with your baby, make sure you keep the room dark and quiet. You can pat or stroke them and speak quietly. You don’t want to pick your baby up, though, during check-ins. Stay for a few moments and let your baby settle, then make your way back out of the room.

Allow your predetermined interval of time to pass and then visit again as needed.

baby sleeping

Why Some Parents Don’t Like The Ferber Method

The Ferber method can be a great way to help train your baby to go to sleep on their own. It’s not without controversy, though. There are some parents who adamantly refuse to use the Ferber method. Here’s why:

  • Listening to your baby cry is difficult: Your body is designed to respond to your crying baby—it can be difficult to listen to your child cry when you know it’s within your power to make that behavior stop. The good news is, there’s no indication that a baby going through the Ferber method approach to sleep training experiences more stress. There’s also no indication of any long-term negatives associated with cry-it-out methods.
  • Richard Ferber is not a psychologist: While Richard Ferber is a pediatrician, he doesn’t specialize in the developing brain. Some people feel this doesn’t make him qualified to create a sleep training plan for young children.
  • The Ferber method is not always implemented correctly: When used on babies who are too young, executed improperly, or deliberately misrepresented, the Ferber method can be damaging. This makes people leery of the process.
  • People worry it will damage their relationship with their child: Some parents feel not responding to distress will leave their child feeling like they can’t trust them. Parents may feel this will have long-term effects on their relationship and even hurt their child’s psyche.
  • The Ferber method doesn’t teach your child how to sleep: Yes, the Ferber method is used to sleep train, but it doesn’t teach your child how to sleep. It does teach them how to self-soothe and how to wait for sleep without crying.
  • Some people don’t believe the child becomes less stressed through the training: Rather, people believe children just learn their cries will go unanswered and they experience their distress in silence.
  • The Ferber method is not always an appropriate choice: There are some real reasons not to use the Ferber method. If your child has severe separation anxiety or vomits under duress, you’ll want to consider another option. 

There are many reasons why people might not choose the Ferber method as their approach to sleep training. There are also many great reasons to try the Ferber method. For best results, explore all of the sleep training options and choose the one you’re comfortable with.

Successfully Using The Ferber Method To Sleep Train

The Ferber method saved me from an endless expanse of sleepless nights. Yes, I waited until my child was six months old. Yes, those first few nights were absolutely miserable. But in a short amount of time, my child was happily settling into sleep.

And now? Bath time is always welcomed with happiness, and there’s not a fight when it comes to heading to the crib. If the Ferber method could do that for our family, it’s possible it can work for yours as well.

Howard is a co-founder of Smart Parent Advice. When he isn't spending time with his wife, Kristin, or his two children, he can often be found running around on the tennis court.