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How to Use the Ferber Sleep Training Method

Quick Overview

Parents of infants often struggle with getting their baby to sleep. Babies naturally wake up during the night to feed, but some may wake up every few hours leaving parents chronically sleep deprived. For this reason, many parents turn to the Ferber sleep training method. This method is one week long and teaches infants to self-sooth and fall back to sleep without the help of a parent. The method uses timed increments where the infant is left alone to cry before a parent comes in the room to check on the infant.  These times intervals where the baby is left alone increase each day until the baby is able to comfort themselves and fall asleep without a parent. The Ferber method is said to help infants sleep independently and help parents get higher quality, sleep at night with fewer interruptions.

The Ferber Sleep Training Method Step by Step

The Ferber sleep training method was developed by Dr. Richard Ferber, a pediatrician and the director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital Boston. In his book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, he explains how to implement the ferberization sleep method. The method covers seven days of sleep training and can be done with any infant aged six months or older. Once the child is in his or her own room, the Ferber method can be applied by following these simple steps.

  • Create a consistent bedtime routine: This can involve reading, music, or rocking the child. It should be calming and done in a quiet and dimly lit room.
  • Put the baby in his or her crib while still awake: After the bedtime routine, place the baby in the crib while he or she is still awake. This will acclimatize the infant to fall asleep on their own without the touch of a parent. The Ferber method points out that children can become upset if they fall asleep in a parent’s arms and wake up alone in a crib since that isn’t the environment they were last aware of. This shock of being in a place they don’t recall being in before they fell asleep can cause the child to cry and feel insecure.
  • After the child is in the crib, leave the room. If the child starts to cry, check on them in timed increments in the chart below:
Day At first wait Second wait Third wait Subsequent wait
1 3 5 10 10
2 5 10 12 12
3 10 12 15 15
4 12 15 17 17
5 15 17 20 20
6 17 20 25 25
7 20 25 30 30

When checking in on the baby, the Ferber method states the child should not be picked up. The visit should only last a few minutes and can include talking to the child, patting him or her on the back, or singing to the child. This reassurance visit should be done while keeping the room dark. If the baby needs to be fed, do so quietly and return the baby to the crib after feeding without providing any other entertainment.

  • Repeat the check-ins until the baby is asleep, following the time chart above. If the child wakes up at night crying, start the timed intervals again until the baby falls asleep.
  • Perform the same routine the following nights with the listed times. The time between visits will lengthen with each day, teaching the baby to self-soothe and become accustomed to falling asleep without the company of a parent. The Ferber method calls this process “progressive waiting.”

Advantages of the Ferber Sleep Method

The Ferber sleep method has several advantages for both baby and parents. If the Ferber sleep method is successful, the child will learn how to fall asleep on their own without needing a parent holding them or providing comfort. This is beneficial for the child to avoid sleep onset association disorder, SOAD. Children can develop SOAD when exposed to inappropriate sleep training. Babies with SOAD require parent attention to fall back to sleep if they wake up at night. The reinforced attention in the middle of the night leads to them to feel insecure and uncomfortable falling asleep alone. If the child learns to fall asleep unaccompanied at bedtime, they will be more likely to fall back asleep alone if they wake up in the middle of the night. This allows parents to stay in bed or still asleep.

If parents can stay asleep at night with no need to attend to a crying baby, they are less likely to suffer from depression or marital intimacy issues. This study shows mother and father depression rates are lower and marriage intimacy issues are less prevalent in those whose child has proper sleep training. Fatigued parents have a harder time with daily tasks than those who get quality sleep at night. The Ferber method aids to acclimate the child to sleep alone through the night without waking parents.

Sleep health in infants is imperative to their well-being and development. Cognitive and physical development rely on a baby getting quality sleep. If successful, the Ferber method aims to teach infants how to sleep through the night while feeling safe and comfortable being by themselves. In addition to the parents sleeping better at night without a crying baby, the child will sleep better when they are relaxed and feel safe.

Preparing for the Ferber Method

The Ferber method is best implemented once the baby is over six-months old. Most babies younger than this will wake several times during the night for feeding, making ferberization hard to follow in conjunction with feeding. This age requirement is also in place because ferberizing requires the child to be sleeping in his or her own room. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends infants sleep in the same room as parents until at least six months old but preferably up to one-year old. The AAP says a child sleeping in the same room as the parents but not in the same bed reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, SIDS, by up to 50 percent. The academy states children should be sleeping in the same room but not bedsharing which significantly increases the risk of SIDS.

Once the child is old enough to follow the ferberization method prepare by following these steps:

  • The baby’s room should be able to stay dark throughout the night. If necessary, a nightlight can be used since the Ferber method requires entering and exiting the room at various times until the child is asleep.
  • Both parents should be in agreement with trying the method and understand the schedule. Ferber mentions the sleep method won’t be successful if one parent doesn’t follow it while the other does. Some parents find it best to start the Ferber sleep method when it’s more convenient to get less sleep like starting it on a Friday night, for example.
  • Ferber method can be done if the infant is still waking in the middle of the night to bed feed. If this is the case, quietly feed and place the baby back in the crib after feeding and begin the timed intervals if the baby begins crying once you leave the room.

Ferber Method Controversy Overview

The Ferber sleep method is one of many that are considered a “cry it out,” CIO, method. Some critics feel that leaving a child to “cry it out” is unhealthy and causes psychological stress to the child. Some sleep training methods suggest never checking in on the child despite crying which some consider it neglect. Regardless of which CIO method is spoken of, most agree sleep training that involves not immediately attending to a crying child to be difficult for both parents and child. Consistency is important in the Ferber method but some parents find it difficult to leave the infant crying and are unable to complete the week-long program.

The Ferber sleep method isn’t the right fit for every family and should not be used in certain situations like if the baby is sick. Always check with your pediatrician before beginning any sleep method training.

The Ferber Method Controversy

The process of teaching a baby to fall asleep on their own in a crib and not in a parent’s arms is called extinction sleep training. The Ferber sleep training method is considered one of the milder CIO methods since it involves gradual extinction, checking in on the child at certain times until they are asleep while providing comfort and security to the child during these check-ins. Other CIO sleep training methods encourage a parent not to enter the room at any time after they are initially placed in their crib. This sleep training  process is difficult for the parents and the infant, although the American Sleep Association (ASA) says the Ferber method is not abandoning or ignoring the child. Many pediatricians agree that when employed at the right age, a CIO method is safe. Both the ASA and pediatricians agree that a CIO method is more difficult on the parents than the child and that if successful, the child will eventually benefit from the sleep training at the trade off of a few hard nights.

Critics of the Ferber method are concerned that letting the child cry will result in elevated stress levels and potential behavioral problems in the future. Some studies have shown that excessive crying can lead to these problems later in life. The studies included children who cried for three or more hours and not necessarily in relation to sleep training, making this information inconclusive.

Several recent studies have shown that not only does a gradual extinction sleep training method like Ferber help an infant sleep better than not employing any sleep training method, the children had no long-term stress effects of being left alone to cry.

Arguments Against the Ferber Sleep Method

The Ferber sleep training method may not be right for every family. Some critics argue the method isn’t healthy for the child and causes undue stress on the infant, leaving them feeling abandoned or betrayed by their caregiver. Below we’ll discuss some of the arguments against ferberizing an infant.

  • The Child May Be Sick: The Ferber method involves letting the child cry for a given amount of time before someone comes in to check. If a child is ill, the crying could be a reaction to child not feeling well rather than the sleep training. If you think your child might be ill, don’t try the Ferber sleep method training until the infant is healthy and you’ve consulted a physician.
  • The Child May Suffer Trauma: Some feel the Ferber sleep method is cruel and will leave the child emotionally scarred from crying. An infant is comforted and given a feeling of safety and security when in the arms of a parent. If the child is crying at night and doesn’t receive a sense of safety, some worry the child will carry on these feelings of abandonment throughout life.
  • The Method is Too Difficult for Parents: Letting your child cry without providing immediate comfort can be tough for parents. Ignoring a crying baby, even temporarily, could cause elevated stress levels in parents or to anyone else that hears the crying baby.
  • Both the Infant and Parents May Not Sleep Well: The Ferber method is outlined to be a process of seven nights. Most parents say the first two or three nights are the worst before they begin to see improvement. During those nights, the parents and infant might not sleep well and have difficulty with fatigue during the day. Most see an improvement by night four when the infant typically sleeps better than the previous three nights.

Signs of Sleep Anxiety in Infants

Usually, around the six-month mark babies will begin to understand separation anxiety. This often leads to a child crying when they naturally wake up in the middle of the night and find themselves alone in a dark room. Infants don’t yet understand that separation from parents during the night is only temporary. Signs of sleep anxiety in children include crying when a parent leaves the room, excessive clinginess especially near bedtime, refusal to sleep without a parent nearby, and waking in the night crying more frequently than in the past. These signs may indicate the child is experiencing separation anxiety when it comes to sleeping.

Other issues with infant sleep anxiety are caused by overstimulation and overtiredness. Overstimulation happens when the child is exposed to non-calming activities which can interfere with sleep. Limiting screen time close to bed is recommended as is refraining from stimulating activities. The bedtime routine should include calming and quiet activities such as feeding, rocking, and holding the baby in a quiet and dimly-lit room.

An overtired baby can struggle with falling asleep. Learn the signs of tiredness in your baby and put them down for a nap or bed when they show signs. Common signs of infant tiredness include yawning, eye rubbing, and fussing. Letting the infant sleep when tired will help the child sleep better through the night.

Sleep anxiety and separation anxiety are a normal part of a child’s infancy. Addressing the issue with consistency is key to overcoming your child’s anxiety. Sleep anxiety can be eased by providing a regular bedtime routine where the baby feels comforted and a familiar safe sleeping environment.

Alternatives to the Ferber Method

Some families find other sleep training methods to be effective. The Ferber method is a form of the “cry it out” method where the child is left alone to self-soothe themselves until they fall asleep, but not all methods rely on this. If the concept of the Ferber method sounds right for your family, but you have concerns or are struggling, you may prefer to adjust the times listed as you see fit. This may lead to ferberization taking longer than seven days, but it could be effective in the end. Aside from the Ferber method, you may find these helpful:

  • Chair method: this involves sitting in a chair next to the baby’s crib until the baby is asleep. Each night, move the chair further away from the crib. Eventually the chair will be in the baby’s room doorway and then outside of the room, eventually phasing out the need for a parent to be sitting in the baby’s room.
  • No tears method: This method allows the child to nurse of bottle feed until drowsy and then placed in the crib. If the infant cries, resume feeding and continue this cycle until the baby is asleep in the crib. This method can take up to two months, but some families find it effective.
  • Wake/sleep technique: This works by rocking, feeding, or holding the baby until asleep. Slightly rouse the baby awake and then transfer him or her into the crib. The baby will now be aware of being placed in the crib but drowsy enough to fall back asleep quickly, ideally without crying.

How to Help Infants Learn to Sleep Longer

It’s natural for infants to wake during the night, especially those younger than three months old. About two-thirds of all infants over six-months old sleep through the night on a regular basis. Parents can help their infants learn to sleep longer and independently by creating a safe sleep environment, following a bedtime routine and watching for signs of tiredness. We’ll explain how to help infants sleep longer in this section.

  • Create a safe sleeping environment. Our circadian rhythm naturally tells our body that we sleep when it’s dark outside and wake when it’s light. You can help your baby establish a sleep routine by having a dark and quiet room for your baby to sleep in. Blackout curtains aren’t recommended unless you want your baby to require pitch black for sleep. Ensure the room is kept quiet which may require closing the door and windows if disruptive noise is happening inside or outside of the house. Some babies will find a pacifier soothing. Infants who can’t roll over yet may find swaddling to be calming because it mimics the feeling of being in the womb.
  • Establish a bedtime routine. Babies benefit from a bedtime routine just as much as adults do. This is a time to wind down from the day and prepare for sleep. Some calming activities to do with babies as part of a bedtime routine is dim the lights, read a book, quiet singing, breastfeeding, or rocking the baby. The predictability will make the child feel secure.
  • Avoid overtiredness. Although counterintuitive, playing all day long may lead to overtiredness and poor-quality sleep at night. Be aware of signs that your baby is tired and don’t push sleep off for much longer when the signs are present. Some common signs are eye rubbing, yawning, fussing, and looking away.

Products to Help Infants Sleep

In addition to sleep methods that will help your infant learn to sleep through the night, several products will help your baby sleep well through the night meaning you can sleep better too.

  • White noise machine: infants can benefit from a white noise machine. The sounds are consistent and familiar to what they were hearing in the womb. The machine will muffle any noise coming from the rest of the house or from outside.
  • Pacifier: many babies will feel comfort and security with a pacifier. Babies are born with a natural sucking reflex because of the need to feed. A pacifier can mimic the comfort a baby feels by sucking when breastfeeding. Studies have shown that a child sucking on a pacifier at night can decrease the risk of SIDS.
  • Swaddling blankets: Infants can find being swaddled tightly in a blanket to feel similar to the security of being in the womb. Wrapping your baby in a swaddling blanket may bring them comfort throughout the night and help them sleep. A swaddling blanket should only be used on babies who don’t show signs of being able to roll over.
  • Firm mattress: A baby’s crib or bassinet should be outfitted with a firm mattress, and the baby should be placed on his or her back for sleep. A firm mattress reduces the risk of SIDS. Some mattresses have attractive features like breathability, lightweight, or ease of cleaning.
  • Nanit Sleep System: This is a comprehensive sleep monitoring system that can help parents understand how their baby sleeps best. The system is a camera attached to the baby’s crib with a phone application to monitor the baby. The Nanit tracks sounds, movements, room temperature and humidity. The app provides an analysis for parents to better understand what conditions are best for their infant to sleep. The app tracks your baby’s sleep trends and offers recommended tips for a better night’s sleep.

Final Thoughts on the Ferber Sleep Method

The Ferber sleep method teaches infants to self-soothe and comfort themselves when they naturally wake up in the middle of the night, allowing them to fall back to sleep without parental interaction. Ferberization can lead to better sleep quality for both infant and parent if it proves successful and the child sleeps through the night or can provide self-soothing.

The Ferber method should only be used on healthy infants with the approval of a physician. Children under the age of six months may not respond well to the Ferber method.

Certain aspects of the Ferber method are present in alternative sleep training methods as well. All sleep training methods recommend the child is given a safe environment to sleep in, that the room is calm, quiet and dark, and that the child follows a healthy and consistent bedtime routine.

Physicians and the Ferber method recommend a baby become comfortable with falling asleep in their crib or bassinet without a parent in the room. Babies who feel secure are better able to handle separation. Additional products could help the child feel more secure like a pacifier or swaddling. In addition to the infant sleep better through the night, parents are able to get more sleep as well and have a lower chance of suffering from depression.

Additional Tuck Resources

These comprehensive Tuck guides provide additional information about healthy sleep for infants, sleep disorders in children, and what to know to get your baby to sleep.