Is the Ferber Method Right for Your Baby (and You)?
When you have a baby, you’re never going to be as well-rested as you were at pretty much any other time in your life. While most parents are okay with that for a while, there comes a point where you’re ready for some solid sleep already. Unfortunately, many babies are just fine with waking up during the night until you teach them otherwise. That’s why many parents turn to the Ferber method, a form of sleep training that encourages babies to sleep through the night.
You’ve probably heard of the Ferber method at some point but might be hazy on the details. Here’s what you need to know about Ferber sleep training, so you—and baby—can start catching more Zzz’s.
The Ferber method is a “cry-it-out” method of sleep training, based on the 1985 best-selling book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber, MD. In the book, Ferber discusses the importance of sleep associations. “The conditions that help a baby fall asleep at night are the same conditions required to put a baby back to sleep after night wakenings,” says Whitney Schutzbank, MD, MPH, a pediatrician at the MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston. Ferber encourages parents to remove those conditions—which baby learns to associate with sleep, like feeding or rocking—so that babies will learn to put themselves to bed without their parents’ help.
Of course, babies would rather have your help falling asleep, so they’ll often cry at bedtime or in the middle of the night while learning to put themselves to bed. “According to Ferber, the fastest and most efficient way to teach your children to sleep through the night is to let them cry at these times,” Schutzbank says.
Sleep training (whether it’s the Ferber method or any type) is not recommended for babies until they’re 6 months old, says Jeffrey Bourne, MD, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “They need to eat in the middle of the night before then,” he explains. But it’s also best to sleep-train before your baby is a year old. “After a year, they have a whole bunch of habits and patterns set and it can be harder to break them,” Bourne says. Regardless of age, always talk to your doctor before starting a sleep-training program. This way, you can be sure baby is growing well and can sleep through overnight feedings.
The Ferber method lays out a very specific, progressive regimen for getting baby to sleep at night. If baby has been sleeping in your room until this point (which is advised by the American Academy of Pediatrics for at least the first six months), it’s time to move them into their own room in a crib. Then, start Ferber sleep training.
• Create a bedtime routine for baby. Read them a book, sing to them or rock them—but make sure they’re still awake when you put them to bed.
• Put baby to sleep in their room. It should be dark and quiet, Schutzbank says.
• Check in at regular but increasingly longer intervals if baby cries. Generally, Ferber sleep training recommends checking on baby after certain increments. With each day, gradually extend the amount of time between checking in on baby This process is known as “gradual extinction.”
During those check-ins, reassure baby by patting them gently without picking them up, then leave the room before they fall asleep, Schutzbank says. Soon enough, baby should get the hang of it. “Usually after about five to seven days, the interval of time spent crying is much shorter, and your child will be putting themselves to sleep and sleeping for much longer periods of time at night,” Schutzbank says.
Below, we’ve outlined the check-in increments for the first seven days:
As you begin introducing baby to the Ferber sleep method, you’ll check in more frequently with them during the first few nights. While it may be difficult at first, try your best to stick to these check-in times for the best results.
- First check-in: 3 minutes after baby starts crying
- Second check-in: 5 minutes
- Third check-in: 10 minutes
- Subsequent check-ins: 10 minutes
Congratulations, you made it through the first night! As baby gets used to this new routine, you will gradually begin extending the amount of time you allow baby to cry before checking on them.
- First check-in: 5 minutes after baby starts crying
- Second check-in: 10 minutes
- Third check-in: 12 minutes
- Subsequent check-ins: 12 minutes
Continue spreading out your check-in times, extending your first check-in from 5 to 10 minutes on day three.
- First check-in: 10 minutes after baby starts crying
- Second check-in: 12 minutes
- Third check-in: 15 minutes
- Subsequent check-ins: 15 minutes
You’re over halfway through your first week of Ferber sleep training, and you’re doing great. You can now subsequently check in on baby at up to 17-minute intervals.
- First check-in: 12 minutes after baby starts crying
- Second check-in: 15 minutes
- Third check-in: 17 minutes
- Subsequent check-ins: 17 minutes
By day five, you can push your first check-in to 15 minutes, and wait a full 20 minutes between subsequent check-ins if baby continues to fuss.
- First check-in: 15 minutes after baby starts crying
- Second check-in: 17 minutes
- Third check-in: 20 minutes
- Subsequent check-ins: 20 minutes
At the six-day mark, you can extend your subsequent check-ins to 25-minute intervals.
- First check-in: 17 minutes after baby starts crying
- Second check-in: 20 minutes
- Third check-in: 25 minutes
- Subsequent check-ins: 25 minutes
By day 7, you and baby should notice some major progress.
- First check-in: 20 minutes after baby starts crying
- Second check-in: 25 minutes
- Third check-in: 30 minutes
- Subsequent check-ins: 30 minutes
Keep in mind, these are just recommended time frames. As Bourne points out, Ferber sleep training can also be personalized if you feel the precise time frames aren’t right for your family. Just be aware that changing things up—particularly checking on baby more frequently—may prolong the process.
Ultimately, though, every baby is different. I myself tried the Ferber method with my baby when he was 11 months old, but it became clear after the first night that checking in on him only upset him more. So my husband and I let him cry. It took only two nights before he was sleeping through the night, and each crying episode lasted only about five minutes. Still, we were glued to the monitor each time. It’s really hard to hear your baby cry and not go to him, but he’s been a great sleeper ever since.
The Ferber sleep method can be tedious at first, so try some of these tips to make it easier on baby and you:
• Babies love routine. Begin a bedtime routine with baby as early as 6 to 8 weeks. At the same time each evening, start the process of getting baby reading for bed—that might include giving them a bath, reading a story and generally getting them relaxed.
• Put baby to bed drowsy but awake. Otherwise, if they’re already sleeping, they won’t notice your new routine.
• Avoid implementing the Ferber sleep training method when there are changes on the horizon. For example, if baby is teething or getting used to a new environment, it may be more difficult to transition into this new approach.
Critics of Ferber sleep training say that letting baby cry without comforting them could be emotionally scarring, but there’s no science behind this claim. “There have been no studies that show negative long-term outcomes for babies who underwent sleep training with the Ferber method versus those who did not,” Schutzbank says. “This method can be extremely helpful for overtired parents and children to allow everyone to get the sleep they need.”
Bourne agrees. “Crying itself doesn’t hurt babies,” he says. In fact, a 2016 Pediatrics paper reported that among families who tried “gradual extinction,” there was no significant difference in stress levels in the infants (as measured by stress hormone levels in the saliva) or in measurements of parent-infant attachment, compared to the control group. Plus, those babies were eventually able to fall asleep 13 minutes earlier than the non-sleep-trained babies, and they woke up significantly less often.
Sound like a dream? Then you might want to try it. Once your child’s pediatrician says it’s okay to start Ferber sleep training, make plans with your partner and figure out the best time to start. The Ferber method works best when you start at a time when everyone in your family is prepared to have a few nights with less sleep, like over the weekend, Schutzbank says. Decide in advance how you’ll handle the crying episodes because, of course, there will be plenty—as Laura, a mother of two, discovered. "The first night was awful. Literally no sleep was had by anyone,” she says. “It’s extremely tough to see your baby crying, but knowing in the back of your mind that it’s best for everyone got us through. The second night was still rough. The baby was up less but it was still awful. But on the third night, he slept solidly until 5 a.m.!”
With Ferber sleep training, moms who’ve done it, like Laura, agree that consistency is key. “As long as you’re committed to going the course with the method, it’s wonderful and works amazingly well,” she says. “If you’re going to be wishy-washy, then I’d highly discourage this method. You have to be firm in your decision and not waver.”
As with anything new you introduce to baby, the Feber sleep method may take some time and practice for everyone to get acquainted. Have patience and faith in the process and don’t give up on your first try. Remember, at the end of the day, you know baby best— if this method doesn’t feel right, you may want to look into other sleep training options. Either way, know that sleep will be in your very near future.
About the Experts:
Whitney Schutzbank, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician at the MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston. She earned her medical degree from Tulane University School of Medicine and specialized in newborn medicine.
Jeffrey Bourne, MD, is a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. He recevied his medical degree from University of Washington and has been in practice for moe than 20 years.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.