Ferber Method for Sleep Training - What Age to Start?Updated Jun 28, 2022
It’s no secret that exhausted parents seeking sleep solutions are faced with an overwhelming abundance of sleep training options to consider. One choice often at the top of the list: The “Ferber Method.” Proponents tout it as a quick fix for child sleep problems.
(Aunt Karen may claim it’s the only fix, but you can just nod and smile when she shares that unsolicited opinion.) Critics often object to the amount of crying that can be involved with this method of sleep training, but researchers have demonstrated benefits from graduated extinction methods like Ferber. We’ll break down the basics and give you our expert advice on this popular sleep training method.
IN THIS ARTICLE
What is the Ferber Method?
Pediatric sleep issues are often caused by parent-led sleep associations, like rocking/holding/feeding a child to sleep. The goal of sleep training is to teach a child to fall asleep on their own. The Ferber Method is a form of sleep training introduced by Richard Ferber, M.D. in his popular book, “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.”
Dr. Ferber recommends using a progressive waiting approach (also known as “controlled crying”) to teach self-soothing and solve sleep problems caused by parent-led sleep associations. In short, parents leave their child for increasingly longer intervals until they fall asleep on their own.
Is this technique effective? Yes, it can be, when parents are committed and consistent. Is the approach a good fit for all families? Nope. Since this method can involve a lot of overtiredness and crying in the beginning, families seeking a gentler way to improve sleep may prefer the gradual approaches we offer in our customized sleep plans.
When to start the Ferber Method?
Dr. Ferber cautions against starting the program too early. He recommends parents begin sleep training when their infant is no younger than 3 - 4 months of age. Newborns don’t sleep through the night, and we shouldn’t expect them to navigate night wakings on their own.
Huckleberry Tip: We’d add the caveat that babies younger than 6 months old aren’t always consistently able to sleep on their own. Since the circadian rhythm isn’t fully formed for the entire night until about 6 months of age, some babies will continue to need help from caregivers in order to fall back to sleep. If you decide to use this method, we recommend waiting until your child is at least 6 months old.
Is the Ferber Method harmful to your baby?
Parents often wonder whether “Ferberizing” can be damaging to children. As of the writing of this article, we’re not aware of any scientific studies supporting the assertion that the Ferber Method is harmful. However, it's well documented that sleep deprivation can be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of children and their parents.
There are quite a few studies that point to the safety of sleep training techniques similar to the Ferber Method. A 2018 study about Infant Sleep Training found that sleep training with a controlled crying method improved sleep and parental depression with no adverse effects reported after 5 years.
Some experts point to elevated cortisol levels (the “stress” hormone) during periods of crying as evidence that controlled crying methods are harmful. However, it should be noted that cortisol levels are also elevated when a child becomes overtired.
Ferber Method Chart For Sleep Training
Minutes to wait before visiting child who is crying or calling out
|Day||Before 1st visit||Before 2nd visit||Before 3rd visit||Before all subsequent visits|
|1||3 mins||5 mins||10 mins||10 mins|
|2||5 mins||10 mins||12 mins||12 mins|
|3||10 mins||12 mins||15 mins||15 mins|
|4||12 mins||15 mins||17 mins||17 mins|
|5||15 mins||17 mins||20 mins||20 mins|
|6||17 mins||20 mins||25 mins||25 mins|
|7||20 mins||25 mins||30 mins||30 mins|
Step-by-Step: How to implement Ferber Method sleep training
Step 1: After your child’s bedtime routine, place your child in their sleep space while they’re still awake. Follow the safe sleep guidelines outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics — put your baby on their back on a firm sleep surface free of pillows, toys, and blankets — and then say “goodnight” and leave the room.
Step 2: If your child cries or calls out for you at bedtime, you’ll wait for a period of time (see the Ferber Method chart) before you check in on them briefly. Visits should be about 1 - 2 minutes long. The purpose is to reassure your child, but not to stop the crying or help your child fall asleep. You’ll wait for increasingly longer intervals before each visit.
For example, on the first night, you’ll wait 3 minutes before your first visit. You’ll leave again and return in 5 minutes if your child continues to cry or call out. After the second brief visit, you’ll check in on them again after 10 minutes. If they continue to protest the change in routine, you’ll continue to visit every 10 minutes until they fall asleep (ideally when you’re not in the room). Each night you’ll continue to lengthen the intervals so that you’re waiting longer before checking on your child.
Step 3: Each time your child wakes during the night, you’ll start the process over again with the minimum waiting time. For instance, every time your child wakes during the night on the first night, you’ll start out by waiting 3 minutes before responding to cries. If needed, you’ll work up to 10 minutes in between visits thereafter.
If your child takes in a significant amount of milk or formula at night, do not suddenly stop the feedings. The initial goal will be to eliminate any extra feedings (when the baby is only taking in a small amount of food such as during comfort nursing) and keep any substantial feedings.
Huckleberry Tip: Fully night weaning too early can lead to early waking. We often recommend maintaining 1 - 2 feedings until your child can comfortably sleep through the night without eating. Night weaning before your child is physically ready can also result in poor weight gain or other unintended health outcomes.
Step 4: Continue these checks until 5:00 - 6:00 AM. At this time, it will be harder for your child to fall back to sleep on their own. Dr. Ferber advises getting your child up and starting your day, while ensuring your child doesn’t fall back to sleep in another room.
Make sure you have coffee on hand for the next morning. The first couple of nights tend to be long and exhausting. By the third or fourth night there’s typically a lot of improvement. If sleep isn’t significantly improving after a week, you’ll want to reconsider the cause of your child’s sleep issues. Since that can be tricky, consider reaching out for expert guidance.
A Huckleberry word of warning: Turning the lights on and having breakfast before 6:00 AM can start an early waking cycle that can be tricky to break out from. Consider waiting until at least 6:00 AM to start your day. Keeping lights off and delaying breakfast can preserve sleep mode and prevent early rising.
Modified Ferber Method
There are a number of ways to modify Dr. Ferber’s progressive waiting approach, depending on a family’s needs. For example, if the wait times feel too long, families can shorten them. Parents may decide to wait for 1, 3, and 5 minutes on the first night, for example.
The technique can also be modified, as needed, depending on where the child sleeps. If a child sleeps in a crib in their parent’s room, parents can speak to the child from their bed at the designated times, rather than leaving the room. For families who bed-share, parents can stay still and unresponsive until the interval time is up.
Ferber Method naps
Dr. Ferber recommends using the same strategy for day sleep. However, if a child is still awake and upset after 30 minutes, go ahead and end this nap period. According to Dr. Ferber, it’s OK, initially, for your child to fall asleep later in another room as long as they do so without the help of the association from which you’re trying to break.
Day sleep should not be allowed to increase beyond the recommended amount, as doing so can interfere with nighttime sleep. Likewise, don’t allow naps to run so late that they interfere with bedtime. You can review our sample sleep schedules by the month of your child's age for further guidance on recommended amounts of sleep.
Ferber Sleep Training Method FAQs
Q: How can you tell if a baby is really hungry when using the Ferber Method?
Many babies will still need to maintain feedings while sleep training. Sleep training can help reduce night wakings caused by sleep associations. However, children tend to be more persistent in their cries if they’re really hungry. If you’ve attempted to cut out a night feeding for a week and your child continues to cry for long periods, this can be an indication that your child is hungry and still needs this night feeding. This is especially true for children who have already mastered the skill of falling asleep on their own.
Q: How long does the Ferber Method take?
When parents are consistent in applying the Ferber Method, and a child is physiologically able to fall asleep (and back to sleep) on their own, most families see significant progress by the third or fourth day.
Q: How long does it take for a baby to self-soothe with the Ferber Method?
How quickly a baby will fall asleep on their own depends on several factors, including: the age of the child, their individual temperament, and whether they are well rested or overtired. Some children fall asleep within the first few checks. Others can take hours to fall asleep in the beginning.
Q: Does the Ferber Method work for toddlers?
Yes, the Ferber Method isn’t only for babies. For toddlers and preschoolers sleeping in their own bed, Dr. Ferber recommends using a gate in the doorway. This essentially turns the bedroom into one big crib. Be sure to childproof the room, including anchoring furniture to the walls, covering electrical outlets, and securing any window treatment cords out of reach.
Q: What are the alternatives to the Ferber Method?
There are many ways to help a child learn to fall asleep on their own. The Ferber Method, which uses a form of graduated extinction, is just one way. There’s also full extinction, otherwise known as “cry it out,” where the parent leaves the child for the full night without any checks for reassurance.
Other techniques, like the ones we use at Huckleberry, include gentler methods. These gradual methods are designed to limit overtiredness and tears.
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Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.