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Lucky Dad No. 7: The Ferber Method

When our eldest daughter, Katie, was between one and two years old, she had a habit of waking up around midnight. First we’d hear her rustling around in her crib. Then there would be some murmuring and muttering. Ere long, she would be on her feet, hands on the slats of the crib in the classic pose, and within seconds she would be jumping up and down and hollering for Mama. One of us would go across the hall and fetch her, change her diaper, carry her back to our bed, and lay her down between us. There she would squirm around for a while, and finally come to rest as a warm little bundle of pajamas in the middle of the marital bed. Eventually, Katie would fall back asleep, Francine would give me a nudge, and I’d carry Katie back to her crib.

Somehow, as young parents, we became convinced that this was a terrible state of affairs. It started when someone told us emphatically that, for their own good, Children Should Sleep in Their Own Beds. I would like to say that this conclusion was the result of a careful review of the relevant scientific literature, but in fact it was based on the crazy mix of fact, fiction, rumor, opinion, and peer pressure that swirls around new parents like a constant fog.

We might have been able to resist, but then someone told us about the Ferber Method, named for its creator, Dr. Richard Ferber, M.D. If you follow the Ferber Method, we were told, then after a few nights your child will be “Ferberized” and will sleep in her own bed for the rest of her life. Here is a summary of the Ferber Method:

  1. Put your baby in her crib, say good night, and leave the room. If she starts to cry, let her cry for five minutes. Then go into the room, comfort her briefly without picking her up, and leave. If she cries again, wait ten minutes before going in, and repeat the process. The point is to reassure your baby that you still exist so that she can go to sleep, and to reassure yourself that she's okay.

  2. Repeat the ritual—adding five minutes each time—until she goes to sleep.

  3. Each subsequent night add an additional five minutes to the first interval. For example, the second night, start by waiting ten minutes before going in, then 15 minutes on the third night, and so on.

The Ferber Method! Even the name sounds scientific! This is the sort of thing that young parents, determined to produce perfect children according to the all the latest scientific research, fall for all the time. We sure did. Here’s how it worked for us.

Night One of the Ferber Method in the O’Brien Household:

  1. We put Katie to bed in her crib with our usual night time rituals, said goodnight, and left the room. Katie fell asleep. Well and good.

  2. As usual, around midnight Katie woke up, and the usual symphony followed. Rummaging in her crib, babbling, gymnastics, and finally crying for “Mama”.

  3. Strict adherents as we now were to the Ferber Method, we set our clock and waited five minutes. Katie cried lustily throughout.

  4. After five minutes, we went into her room, tucked her back in under her blanket, and sought to comfort her. We did not pick her up. That would have been anti-Ferber! Then we left and went back to bed.

  5. Katie was having none of it. She continued to cry, lustily, pitifully. But, good Ferber parents that we were, we stuck with the program.

  6. A long ten minutes passed, Francine and I lying in bed wide awake as Katie cried her heart out across the hall. At last, released by the clock, we went back to her room. This was no time to capitulate, so we went through the Ferber process again. We comforted Katie, we tucked her back under her blanket. We did not pick her up, even though Katie clawed at us desperately. That would have been anti-Ferber!

  7. We went back to bed. Katie was completely undeterred. If anything, she cried more lustily, more piteously. Francine and I lay in bed, stricken, for fifteen minutes. We were now deeply invested in the Ferber Method, and the unequal contest of wills with our daughter. There was no chance or hope of sleep.

  8. Fifteen minutes passed—an eternity!—and again we went across the hall to Katie’s bedroom. There was Katie, standing in her crib, hollering, red in the face, abandoned, pathetic. What else could we do? We comforted her, we tucked her in . . . but we did not pick her up! That would be to admit defeat! And we went back to our bedroom, this time for 20 minutes.

I will spare you the details of the rest of that night. Only when we were up over 30 minutes per Ferber interval did Katie finally give up and fall asleep. The entire, grueling experience had lasted at least an hour and a half. It exhausted me and Francine physically, and filled us with guilt and remorse. But we had succeeded! Night One of the Ferber Method was behind us. The very next night, as usual, we put Katie to bed, filled with hope that she had been thoroughly Ferberized, and that she would sleep placidly through the night ever after.

But no . . . . Right on schedule around midnight, Katie woke up, rustled around, started her gymnastics, and eventually began to call for “Mama.” And what did we do, now that we were steely-nerved acolytes of Dr. Richard Ferber, M.D.? We immediately went across the hall, picked Katie up from her crib, and brought her into bed with us, where she squirmed for a little while in between us, then fell blissfully asleep. And that was the end of the Ferber Method in the O’Brien household. In our post-Ferber world we had years of nocturnal visits from our daughters, which almost always ended with them wriggling down into the bed between me and Francine and falling asleep there. Despite the warnings from all of the experts, we never once crushed or suffocated a daughter by rolling over her in the night. In fact, the whole thing was pretty darn sweet.

At this point, you are no doubt wondering: “What the hell were they thinking?” I refer you, therefore, to the famous Milgram experiment, named after the Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, who came up with it. Volunteers were led to believe they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer gradually increasing electric shocks to a “learner” in the other room, as the “learner” made successive mistakes. The “learners” were in on the experiment, and the electric shocks were fake. Although the volunteers were uncomfortable administering the shocks, many continued to do so, despite hearing the “learners” increasingly-agonized shouting. If the volunteers protested, the person leading the experiment instructed them to continue, and most of them did. The Milgram experiment has all sorts of terrifying implications, and this is hardly the place to delve into them. The essence of the experiment, though, can be found in a quote from Professor Milgram: “The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study . . . .”

I have no reason to suspect that the entire Ferber Method for getting your child to sleep through the night is simply an extension of the Milgram experiment. This I know, however: Francine and I were willing to put our own daughter through the wringer purely on the basis of the instructions of a distant authority figure (Ferber) who emphasized the importance of continuing the treatment. I’d like to think that, if I were a subject in the Milgram experiment, I would be one of the minority who quickly refused to administer further shocks, but on the basis of our Ferber experience, I can’t be too sure.

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