What is Controlled Crying or the Ferber Method?

by | Apr 17, 2022 | Improving sleep, Toddler, Top tips

Thinking about baby sleep training methods? One of the most talked about approaches to sleep training your baby/child is by using the Controlled Crying (or Ferber) method.

The goal is to help children associate sleep with their beds and bedtime routines, not with the presence of a parent. This approach, while effective for many, is not without controversy, as it requires a level of emotional comfort by allowing a child to cry for controlled periods of time.

Let’s break it down.

Who is Ferber?

Dr Richard Ferber M.D is an Associate Professor of Neurology and founded the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders in Boston. However, he’s more commonly known for being the author of ‘Solve your Child’s Sleep Problems’, a hugely popular book, covering a range of sleep-related topics about children’s sleep, and sleep training methods.

In this book, Richard Ferber proposed his own sleep training method. You may have heard it called ‘controlled crying’, ‘Ferber method’ or ‘graduated extinction’.

However, this method of sleep training is quite simply about helping a child to fall asleep without a parent in the room calming their child for periods of time.

The parents will wait for progressively increasing minutes before going in to calm down. It aims to promote self-soothing, let them fall asleep (and fall back to sleep) independently and ultimately help a child to learn how to sleep through the night.

What is the Ferber sleep training method?

This approach is based on the opinion that your baby is able to fall asleep and fall back to sleep by themselves with minimal parental reassurance – if they are given the opportunity.

Ferber calls this a progressive waiting approach. You’ll continue with your usual bedtime routine, and then when your child is tired, but still awake, you’ll put your baby in their cot/crib, say night night (or your usual sleepy phrase) and leave the room.

Then the Ferber sleep training method usually follows the following steps:

  • If your child or baby starts crying, you’ll set the timer.
  • When the time is up, go in.
  • Calm them and reassure them – let them know they’re ok. Ideally, the baby or child should remain in their cot.
  • Then leave the room.
  • When they start to cry, again set the timer for the next interval.
  • When it’s up, go in to calm and reassure, leave and start the next stage of the process.
  • Repeat, progressing through the intervals on the chart until they fall asleep for the night.
  • Repeat the process for night waking’s that are not due to hunger or other needs (such as nappy change)

While this method is effective for many, it can be emotionally challenging for parents. Therefore, it’s important to choose a sleep training method that aligns with your parenting style and comfort level. You should also consider your child’s temperament and developmental stage when choosing a sleep training method.

Ferber argues that his method does not advocate for total abandonment or neglect of the child. Rather, it encourages children to find their own self-soothing techniques while assuring them that their parents are nearby for comfort when necessary.

The end goal is to help your child establish healthy sleep habits, which can benefit their overall mood, behaviour, and cognitive development.While this method is effective for many, it can be emotionally challenging for parents.

Therefore, it’s important to choose a sleep training method that aligns with your parenting style and comfort level. You should also consider your child’s temperament and developmental stage when choosing a sleep training method.

Ferber method chart

Notes for Ferber method:

  • There is a possibility that when you leave the room after a check and console your baby/child may cry harder than before, this is likely and you should be prepared for it.
  • This method requires both commitment and consistency.
  • It is imperative you have a timer – 30 seconds of crying may feel like 5 minutes

Additional points to consider:

Ensure all caregivers are on board and understand the method to maintain consistency in your child’s routine.

While implementing this method, it’s crucial to differentiate between regular fussing or crying and signs of distress or illness. If your child seems unusually upset or unwell, it’s important to address those concerns first.

Finally, be patient with the process and your child. Improvement in sleep habits typically takes time, and every child is different. The process might take longer for some children than others.

Remember, the ultimate goal of this method is to promote healthy sleep habits for your child and not to cause undue distress. If the method seems too stressful for either you or your child, it might be beneficial to explore other sleep training strategies or consult a sleep consultant.

What’s controversial about the Ferber method?

The Ferber method aims to:

“Help your child learn a new and more appropriate set of associations with falling asleep so that when he wakes in the middle of the night he will find himself in the same conditions that were present at bedtime”

Solve your child’s sleep problems (p72)

Sounds sensible, but it depends how far the child needs to ‘jump’. Where did they start from? Co-sleeping and fed to sleep? Or, with a parent already standing by the door? How old is the child? 6 months old or 1 year?

Understandably, for many parents, leaving a child in their room for prolonged periods of time, especially when they are still awake and crying can cause fear and anxiety.

For many parents I work with, this method of sleep training is a step too far, and they’d rather be with (or closer to) their child as they learn to self-soothe and fall asleep independently.

However, I also work with parents who have little ones who are easily stimulated and highly distracted by their parents presence. At bedtime they would rather talk, play and, well, basically do anything that is not sleeping!

For more spirited kiddies, sometimes new skills are more easily learnt when they know the parent is present to check and reassure, but not play. If the parent is outside the room (or out of sight), it can feel easier as the rules at bedtime and during the night are a little clearer.

Many parents sit somewhere in the middle though. It feels easier if they’re outside the room, but the time intervals suggested in the Ferber method just feel too long. So parents choose to work with the principles of this method but shorten the interval lengths.

baby, girl, sleep, Controlled Crying or the Ferber methodControlled Crying or the Ferber method?

Controlled Crying or the Ferber method?

Your questions answered

Q. When using the Ferber method, will my child fall asleep alone?

A. Yes. The Ferber method aims for children and babies to learn falling asleep without a parent present.

Q. Is the Ferber method also known as cry it out or extinction sleep training?

A. No. Cry it out sleep training methods, or ‘extinction’ would involve leaving putting your baby or child in their cot and leaving them to fall asleep without any check-ins.

Ferber suggests check-ins of anything between 3 to 30 minutes as you work through the plan.

Q. How is the Ferber method different to other sleep training methods?

A. The Ferber method typically involves more crying than other approaches as you would be leaving your child for a progressively longer period of time before performing check-ins and consoling. As such, it can be described as a ‘cry-based’ approach and is therefore only suitable for families who feel it is a good match for their child’s temperament.

Q. Does the Ferber method work?

A. For many families this approach of progressive waiting or graduated extinction does work. The first night and subsequent nights may be hard, but then families tend to experience an easier put down and bedtime routine.

Q. Will the Ferber method fail?

A. Most families who have difficulty with this approach find it’s because it’s simply not for them. It isn’t aligned with their parenting style or their child’s temperament.

If parents are not confident with any method of sleep training when starting, then they will find it harder to be consistent. The vast majority of sleep training methods require total consistency.

You may need to work on your baby’s ability to self-soothe at bedtime before seeing an improvement to night wakings.

Therefore, consultation with a sleep consultant or sleep specialist should always be considered when facing persistent sleep problems.

Q. Will my baby cry?

A. It’s highly likely as you will be changing the way in which they go to sleep. Any variation to pattern and routine can involve tears. Whilst you will be able to check and console your baby, you are aiming for them to fall asleep without you in the room.

You will probably find your baby cries when you leave the room as typically this is different to what they were expecting, whether that is being fed to sleep, rocked or held.

Some families do find their baby cries much less than they were expecting. They may fuss, moan or groan, but they don’t experience the prolonged periods of crying they were expecting.

expecting.

Q. What if the Ferber method doesn’t work for my child?

A: Not every sleep training method works for every child. If you’ve tried the Ferber method consistently and aren’t seeing improvement, or if it’s causing significant stress for you or your child, it may be worth exploring other methods or seeking advice from a paediatrician or a sleep consultant.

expecting.

Q: Can I use the Ferber method for naps as well?

A: Yes, the Ferber method can be used for naps. However, it’s usually recommended to start with nighttime sleep before moving on to naps.

Q: How long does it take for the Ferber method to work?

A: The amount of time it takes for a child to adjust can vary. Some might see improvements in a few days, while others might take a couple of weeks. Consistency is key in this process.

Q: How long does it take for the Ferber method to work?

A: The amount of time it takes for a child to adjust can vary. Some might see improvements in a few days, while others might take a couple of weeks. Consistency is key in this process.

Q. What age can I start using the Ferber method?

A: It’s important to consider your child’s age and development before starting. The Ferber method is usually recommended for babies older than 4-6 months, with some arguing that this is a better developmental age for sleep training. Personally, when talking to parents considering this approach I suggest waiting until after 6 months.

Q. Who is Ferber?

A: Richard Ferber wrote a book called “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems”. It’s a huge book and is much more than just “the Ferber method”. It has been widely regarded as a valuable resource for parents, equipping them with the knowledge and tools needed to help their child overcome sleep difficulties, particularly in the USA. 

The book provides parents with a better understanding of the nature and causes of sleep disorders and guides them through the process of developing an effective treatment plan. It also offers practical tips on creating a sleep-friendly environment and establishing routines that promote healthy sleep habits.

One suggestion in the book is the Controlled Crying approach (or Ferber method). The rest of the book is actually quite a comprehensive guide, and offers practical and easy-to-understand advice for parents dealing with a variety of children’s sleep problems. These problems include difficulty falling asleep, night waking, sleep schedule problems, nightmares, night terrors, bedwetting, sleep apnoea, and more.

Q. I’m looking to start sleep training, shall I start the Ferber method tonight?

A. If you’ve not worked on sleep training before, then there’s lots of foundation and prep you can do in advance prior to choosing this (or another) method.

  • #1 Make sure you establish a bedtime routine to try and get your baby ready for sleep. 15 minutes every night of a calm feed, change, story or lullaby can help prepare them for a good night’s sleep.
  • #2 Keep in mind your baby will also find bedtime easier if they have slept well in the day and aren’t going to into bedtime over or under-tired.
  • #3 Also check your sleep environment. A calm, dark space with white noise can also support your baby’s sleep.
  • #4 You will need to let your baby become accustomed to their own sleep space as they will learn to fall asleep unaided. Spend lots of lovely time in the day in their room, playing in their cot. Pop out from time to time, gradually increasing the periods of time outside the room. This will help improve the familiarity with their sleep space.

Then you can focus on what sleep training method you wish to use. Let’s set them up on the first night with a great foundation.

Remember, every child is unique and what works for one might not work for another. It’s important to choose a sleep training approach that feels comfortable for you and suits your child’s individual needs.

Consistency, patience, and understanding your child’s individual needs are key to successful sleep training. It’s also crucial to remember that parental comfort is a cornerstone of this method.

If your child appears excessively distressed or if the method doesn’t seem to be working after a consistent trial, it may be beneficial to explore other techniques or seek professional advice.

Ultimately, the goal is to promote healthy sleep habits that ensure a good night’s sleep for both the child and the rest of the family.

If you are experiencing difficulties with your child’s sleep at night or sleeping patterns, please get in touch or reach out via instagram.

You can also check out more of my blog posts and printed media articles here.

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Hi, I’m Gemma, your sleep consultant

I am a certified baby and child sleep specialist who works with families all over the world.

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