The Science of Baby Sleep

Dr. Ferber revises his famous book, and he takes aim at parents.

The dismaying advance word about the new edition of Dr. Richard Ferber’s totemic book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, was that the nation’s best-known sleep expert had gone mushy. Oh no, I thought, feeling betrayed. My husband Paul and I succeeded in training neither of our children according to Ferber’s method. Still, his parenting book is read and reread in our house, because we rely on Ferber for backbone. So, it would be traitorous for the doctor to retreat from his claim that it’s an act of necessity and virtue to tolerate crying (in precisely measured doses) as your child figures out how to go to sleep at night and stay that way.

It’s been a relief, then, to read Ferber’s new book, which appears two decades after the original, and find that he’s still his stern self. Sure, he now calls his dismissal of parents who want to sleep with their children “unfortunate.” And he has shortened the longest period that he advises letting a child cry, from 45 to 30 minutes. But these are minor sops and sins. If anything, the past 20 years of counseling sleep-addled families has made Ferber all the more exasperated with parents who don’t set firm rules. A new chapter, “The Problem of Limit Setting,” expressly aims to stiffen the parental spine. I savored its hectoring tone and imagined how it could save me from my younger son—or, as Ferber would have it, save my son from me.

Ferber’s method rests upon the sensible idea that children have to learn to go to sleep by themselves. To do that, they need a set of “sleep associations” that don’t require your presence, which means at bedtime no nursing, rocking, back rubbing, or singing to your baby. Ferber provides a vivid analogy for adults: “Think again about having to sleep without your pillow,” he writes. “You would no doubt curse your bad back and your doctor vehemently. … The only way you would learn to fall asleep without your pillow would be to actually practice doing so.” So it also goes for a baby who since birth has been nursed to sleep and is now going off the boob. She needs to practice and that means some crying—and not crying followed by a guilt-ridden rush to make the wailing stop. When parents cave, “their child only learns that he must cry longer to get what he wants.” According to Ferber, your impulse to give unconditional comfort is misguided, and maybe you’ll even be able to conquer it. “Once you understand that your child’s need is simply to learn a new way to fall asleep (whether it is what he wants or not) it is easier for you to see that this need is met,” Ferber says.

I’m happy to report that this serene passage, with its reassurance that disciplined parenting is good parenting, appears in the new edition. So does the genius chart of neat columns that lays out the number of minutes you should wait, in increments that increase over a series of nights, before going in to comfort your child. Ferber takes great pains to say that whatever his reputation, he is not the doctor who thinks kids should cry their eyes out. “Simply leaving a child in a crib to cry for long periods alone until he falls asleep, no matter how long it takes, is not an approach I approve of,” he complains. “On the contrary, many of the approaches I recommend are designed specifically to avoid unnecessary crying.”

How nice of the doctor to draw the line between being firm and being mean. Now let me turn again to that lovely chart. If you feel like an ogre when you see a baby’s face contort with outrage, that chart is your friend. The step-by-step instructions make it easier to believe that your child is screaming his head off for good reason. You have a plan, the screaming is part of it, and Ferber promises that it will end soon.

Often, it does. We have friends who Ferberized their two children not only to go to sleep without a fuss at night but also to wait until 7 a.m. to get out of bed in the morning, no matter what time they wake up. Our friends followed Ferber’s guidelines precisely, keeping a meticulous record of every bedtime and wake-up. I am in awe of them. If only Paul and I had such prowess. Our first son, Eli, didn’t test us much. His independent sleep habits were easy to instill—a few nights of five minutes of crying and he got the hang of it. He woke up at 5:30 in the morning for a long dreadful spell, but we never tried to cure him of that. Our second son, Simon, had the will to outlast us. While I talk a good discipline game, I don’t actually have the heart to listen to my kids wail for what feels like hours (and a few times was). So, despite our better intentions, we aborted Ferberizing midstream. I’m not really sure how we managed instead. It’s all a life-shortening, sleep-deprived blur.

Simon is 3 now and for the most part has outgrown his nighttime bouts of insanity. Still, I loved the impatient tone of “The Problems of Limit Setting” chapter. “Ask yourselves, ‘Who’s In Charge?’ ” Ferber writes. “Frequently, when parents describe to me what happens at night in their household, it is clear that they are not.” He goes on to inform you that if you have difficulty setting limits, you 1) don’t understand their importance; 2) feel guilty—do you travel too much? 3) are using your child’s wakefulness to avoid your spouse; or 4) are drug-addicted, sick, or depressed. Harsh, but true. Ferber doesn’t tell us what we want to hear, but he is probably right.

Whatever your hang-up, get over it. Establish a bedtime routine. Stick to it. Say good night. Close the door. “Then stay on the other side of the door and hold it closed as needed,” Ferber instructs. A second chart follows, this one setting out, also in gradually increasing increments, the “number of minutes to close the door if your child will not stay in his room.” Upon careful rereading, I discovered that this chart was in the first edition, too. But I’d missed it because it didn’t have a chapter and set of explanations of its own. Armed with the new material, I could feel my resolve strengthened. No more 8:30 p.m. bowls of cereal! No more five other reasons to pop out of bed! Your child “should learn that his leaving his room triggers a definite response which increases each time and over which he has no further control.”

This is the Ferber I depend on. When he tries to go soft—advising parents who sleep with their children that, “Whatever you want to do, whatever you feel comfortable doing, is the right thing to do, as long as it works“—his laissez-faire attitude is unconvincing. Ferber quickly moves to his many reservations about co-sleeping: not enough sex and too much fatiguing contact with the children. With co-sleeping, his focus is the “endgame” because you “must plan when and how to stop.” Ha. I have never met a co-sleeping couple with an endgame. The whole idea is to go with the family flow. I agree with Ferber that there’s nothing wrong with co-sleeping if both parents are up for it. But why bother trying to adapt a more rigid method for them when it just didn’t fit?

What parents need from Ferber is what children need from parents: clear rules and a firm hand. “A young child cannot yet understand what is best for him,” Ferber writes. A young (or new) parent sometimes can’t either. Luckily, his misguided nod to co-sleepers notwithstanding, Ferber is still in charge.