The Dr. Spock of Sleep

How Richard Ferber became the icon he is.

Nobody sleeps like a baby anymore—or perhaps the problem is that everybody sleeps like a baby now. Americans are up at all hours, fretting and foraging for food, upsetting schedules, and keeping experts busy worrying over strategies for improving the nation’s rest. Among them is Richard Ferber, the author of the 20-year-old child-rearing classic, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, who, like Dr. Spock before him, is more than a household name. He is a household verb. Over the past two decades, baby boomers who were “Spocked when they should have been spanked” have led the popular quest “to Ferberize” children, a by-the-clock method that promises to turn little screamers into independent sleepers. A new edition of Ferber’s book—heralded as mellower than the original—prompts a question: What made him an icon in the first place?

Ferber, like Spock, isn’t the author of a mere parenting primer. Both men’s books are social emblems of the endless American debate over whether the secret to national success and happiness lies in more discipline or more bonding, the earlier the better. Both owe their fame partly to being in the right place at the right time—which for Ferber meant arriving on the scene just as 80-year-old Spock was receding from the spotlight. What he offered wasn’t a backlash to Spockian solicitude so much as a brisk dose of straightforward advice to an audience by now deluged with competing child-rearing counsel. Above all, Ferber managed a feat rare among American parenting advisers: In a sea of polarized expertise, his manual appealed to traditionalist and liberal parents alike, offering wisdom that sounded reassuringly old-style and up-to-date at the same time.

Dr. Spock had done the same for mid-20th-century parents. With his “trust yourself” mantra—and his kindly therapeutic manner—Spock had emerged as the incarnation of new intimacy, the perfect spokesman for the prosperous postwar era of family harmony and stay-at-home motherhood. His Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (which came out in 1946, the very year the baby boom began) was the chatty antidote to chilly, chart-filled predecessors designed to “regularize” children and stabilize mothers whose unscientific sentimentality was judged a threat to healthy development. Inspired by a faith that babies knew best when—and how much—to eat, and that the maternal milk supply would accommodate, Spock urged a more organic nonmethod: Mothers should throw away their nursing schedules and take their cues from their infants. This “self-demand” feeding philosophy was a model for the genially Freudian family dynamic of conflict-free harmony evoked in the rest of his pages. Baby and Child Care arrived with no muss or fuss—not an ounce of advertising. But thanks to word of mouth, 750,000 copies sold within the first year. And no wonder: Spock’s manner was irresistible, and his approach promised liberating fulfillment for mother and child alike.

Forty years later, Ferber’s book emerged as another sleeper hit: thego-to guide for a new on-the-go family, dispensing brusque wisdom for a busy world now full of working mothers and buffeted by family disequilibrium. Ferber focused not on feeding but on the self-destructive cycle of sleeplessness: the more tired babies get, the harder they fight sleep, and the more exhausted parents get, the less in control they feel and the more conflict there is. His programmatic package—which entails letting a baby cry for progressively longer intervals until she finally learns to conk out quickly—promised to restore calm on the home front and a sense of balance for frayed parents at work.

Ferber’s was hardly the only no-nonsense manual to take an un-Spockian tack. By the 1980s, plenty of “dare to discipline” style experts had stridently positioned themselves as the answer to the “Pied Piper of permissiveness,” as Spock had been labeled in the late 1960s and 1970s. (In truth, this label was a response more to his role as an anti-war activist out on the barricades than to his manual, which got firmer with every revision.) But Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems became to the Spock era what Spock’s original had been to his predecessors largely because it offered a practical, nonideological antidote that packed a highly relevant metaphorical punch. Sleep was to the emerging information era what feeding had been to the birth of the consumer era: the locus for concerns about limits, or the lack of them. And conveniently enough, the very year Ferber’s book came out, Spock himself began officially bowing out: In the fifth edition of his classic, published in 1985, the elderly doctor for the first time signed on a co-author (child psychiatrist and activist Michael B. Rothenberg), laying the groundwork for what he hoped would be a smooth transition.

But the succession was out of his hands, of course, and in post-feminist America, the Freudian vision of instinctual motherhood was out of step with an audience that found it more oppressive than liberating. Spock’s cognitively inclined descendants—T. Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach—were welcomed by lenient parents in the educated elite. But the subtle bonding and “attunement” they called for could sound all-consuming, too. Brazelton himself acknowledged as much in his 1985 book, Working and Caring, lamenting that the “social pressure to be a child development expert as well as a loving parent requires a kind of ‘supermom’ or ‘superdad.’ ” Ferber slipped into the perfect niche with a book that followed a newly cut-and-dried trend in child “training.”

Whether or not parents actually followed through with his regimen, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems was there on the shelves, a trim volume of realism next to the ever fatter Spock and company. It relied not on maternal intuition and infantile cooperation, which could be so elusive, but on step-by-step instructions for handling a source of daily conflict: bedtime. Appealingly, too, Ferberizing techniques put no special premium on typically empathetic motherly qualities. In fact, ignoring your child’s cries all but, well, cried out for tough-minded paternal participation. With its tidy timetables, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems harked back to the prewar, by-the-charts style Dr. Spock had resisted. With its diagram of brain-wave patterns in sleep, it also looked ahead to the neurobiological focus of the information age. Ferber was rigorous without being rocket science and promised not to be too time-consuming.

In the end, though, what is striking is how similar Spock and Ferber are, despite their apparent differences. Both discovered before long that the people who are truly hard to train are parents, not babies. The purportedly gentler Ferber may have capitulated, grudgingly, on co-sleeping—the practice of family bed-sharing—to quiet the clamor of “attachment parenting” crusaders. But in his revision he sounds fit to be tied by parents’ evident inability to get their bigger kids into their bedrooms at an appointed hour. He’s added a new chapter on “The Problems of Limit Setting.” Far from being milder, it could almost have been written by the sterner Dr. Spock, who, soon after his first edition had set sales records, began worrying that millions of readers were letting their kids run them ragged.

In a talk to the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1948, Spock presciently singled out a telling issue. He complained of “a behavior problem which in my experience was formerly rare but is now becoming more frequent. I believe its frequency is related to the new trend toward self-regulation and greater kindliness to babies and to confusion in how to apply this philosophy.” Babies might be good guides when it came to food, he explained, but his maternal fans had mistakenly concluded that this meant kids were the boss when it came to going to bed. This misapprehension, he warned, wreaked havoc on the household. And in subsequent editions, a somewhat testy Spock gave more draconian advice than Ferber has ever dared offer: Just let a baby cry it out for a night or two—no tiptoeing in at intervals for reassurance—and she’ll shape up.

We’ll never know how mothers and fathers might fare if theywere left to wage their bedtime battles on their own. The experts aren’t about to abandon them. Bonding with parents, after all, is good for business, and the less obedient they are, the better.