Should I advise my grown children to use the Ferber sleep method?


Q: When we were raising our babies (now 20- and 30-somethings), we followed the Ferber method, popularized by Richard Ferber, who instructed parents to let their children cry at night for gradually increasing periods of time before entering the room to comfort them, so they learn to comfort themselves. It worked like a charm for us when we stuck to the routine.

Our children are now contemplating having kids, and we want to pass on the wisdom. However, when I mentioned our strategy to a well-known French pediatrician who happens to be a friend, he said this type of method is now believed to cause anxiety, short attention spans and other behavioral problems (I don’t recall the list) as children get older.

What is your view? Do you recommend the Ferber method yourself?

A: Oh boy, this is a question that leads to many strong and fractious opinions, but one thing is true: Every generation has its sleep guru or trend. There’s crying it out, Ferberizing, attachment-parenting co-sleeping, having a family bed, etc.

It is very confusing for every new parent, especially when we live in a culture without a built-in sleep plan. In cultures where everybody does the same thing, there is solidarity in the sleep method. There’s generational support, leading to a confidence for parents. With the U.S. parenting culture, it often feels as if every parent is starting from scratch with every new baby.

U.S. parents may tend to prize data and “white coat” opinions (those from doctors and experts) over their own intuition and lived experiences with their babies. Of course, doctors and experts are important, and they can be incredible supports, but the truth? Helping your baby to sleep is not about adopting the right theory; it’s about getting to know your baby and responding appropriately.

As for the Ferber method causing problems, that’s largely been debunked. Many people associate the Ferber method (gradual extinction) with crying it out (letting the baby cry without going to them at all). Gradual extinction (letting the baby cry a bit, then, after a certain amount of time, going to them for soothing) has been shown to not hurt attachment or growth. But experts also maintain that allowing babies under 6 months to cry for too long is not recommended. The need for closeness is the primary developmental requirement of a young baby, so harsh sleep training is not recommended.

What matters most, though, is not what you used and prefer for sleep training. What matters most is that your children find their own way without unsolicited commentary and advice from you.

Do children’s bedtime books help children get to sleep?

I know that it’s hard. You have all of this experience, knowledge and hard-earned wisdom from years of parenting, and you’re not expected to share it? Yes, kind of, and it’s not just because your children will have a separate path and experience than you. It’s also because people don’t receive and respond well to unsolicited advice and, “Well, when I was raising you,” stories. Your children will need your compassion, support and cheerleading. They will need you to hold the baby, do laundry, make food and hug them when it’s all too much to bear. Unless you are witnessing abuse, your parenting role switches into steadfast listening and compassion.

You asked me whether I support the Ferber method, and I’ll answer it this way: It doesn’t matter what I support. If the needs of the baby are being met, then sure, Ferber could be lovely. Some babies may need to be helped to sleep for a long time; some babies will be put in a crib and poof — asleep instantly. There is simply no use in making a plan or adhering to a theory until you meet your baby.

And you can trust that, by the time your children have their own kids, there will be another theory. Good luck.

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