…or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Ferber Method of making my baby cry it out.
It’s an obscure phrase for most folks, but, to the freshly reproduced community, the Ferber Method of sleep-training is the most controversial parenting technique this side of paddling. Supporters dub it a form of self-soothing therapy for babies, while critics decry it as a heartless “cry it out” technique and consider it cruel, if not outright child abuse. But I think not following it can be even crueler to both child and parent.
Devised by Dr. Richard Ferber in 1985 (based on an undeniably harsh sleep-training technique by turn-of-the-previous-century pediatrician Dr. Emmet Holt), the namesake method follows the basic idea that babies don’t sleep through the night because parents don’t teach them how.
Us adults wake up repeatedly though the night; we just don’t remember because we know how to fall back to sleep. Babies, however, don’t. Babies don’t know much of anything. It’s quite a freaking miracle that humans evolved to take over the planet considering how utterly useless our offspring are. Giraffes pop out of the womb and walk away; humans don’t even have neck muscles for three months! At such a young age, we can’t roll over, and we certainly can’t sleep through the night.
This is why that profane baby book Go the Fuck to Sleep (written by an exhausted father whose two-year-old took two hours to crash out) became such a viral phenomenon. Those months of waking up every few hours (so the baby can feed) turns early parenthood into an epic of intensity unmatched by any experience this side of war or famine. Sleep deprivation builds to the point where you don’t even notice it anymore, except maybe when your friends crack jokes about how much cooler it would be if you were a fast 28 Days Later zombie rather than a George Romero-brand slow one.
Well, it ain’t great for your kid, either—and certainly not when it goes on for years. Constantly waking every few hours is totally necessary for the first few months, because babies need to eat and their wee tummies can only hold a limited supply. But around the six-month mark they’re big enough to sleep through the night—if they could only figure out how.
The understandable inclination of most parents, including myself, is to rock your child to sleep on your chest. It is, quite simply, one of life’s most beautifully intimate experiences. But like other beautifully intimate experiences, it can be selfish, too.
If your child only knows how to fall asleep on you, then what happens when they wake up in the middle of the night alone in their crib? Answer: they freak out until you put them back on your chest. This is an untenable situation that robs both of you of sleep—and it can also go on forevs. Lots of kids take years to suss it out, either waking through the night, taking ages to go to bed or getting up at ungodly hours.
Now you can find as many child-rearing advice books as there are children to rear, and certainly my parenting experience is limited to my own just-turned-two-year-old Emile, who has been happily sleeping through the night since age seven months, when we Ferberized him. OK, technically we didn’t quite use the Ferber Method, but a slightly softer approach dubbed The Sleepeasy Solution. Still, the premise is essentially the same.
Rather than putting your child down already asleep, you spend some quality cuddle time with them, develop a bedtime routine (mine involved singing songs from The Wizard of Oz and Guys and Dolls and reading Paola Opal’s awesomely illustrated book Totty) and then when they’re almost asleep you drop ‘em, drowsy, in their bed. They will cry. And you must walk away.
Not forever, though, which is what anti-Ferberites would have you believe. You wait five minutes and go back in to reassure your child that you still exist in the universe because, understandably, babies have permanence issues. Then you leave again, even though they’re probably crying even worse than before. You repeat this after 10 minutes and then again every 15 minutes until they’re asleep.
Theoretically, the child will realize that crying does not result in you picking them up and they’ll move on and go to sleep. It can take up to a week. Emile figured this out before we even hit the first 15-minute span—a grand total of 23 traumatic minutes—and has gladly gone to bed at 7 p.m. sharp and slept through the night ever since. Most babies aren’t that easy, I get that, but too many parents are too upset by the sound of their kids crying to give this method a go, leaving both sleep-deprived for months, if not years.
No-cry parenting is a relatively new phenomenon—for tens of thousands of years, parents have let their kids cry themselves to sleep and yet we still evolved into homo sapiens, created language, built the pyramids and developed iPhones. Claims that Ferber-induced distress causes permanent neurological and/or emotional damage are specious at best; no-cry parenting seems more about assuaging unwarranted parental guilt rather than doing what is truly best for your baby—which is to give their baby bodies the long, deep sleep they require to develop into healthy, happy children. They want structure and routine and parents who are not eternally exhausted.
Look, I love Emile more than everything, but I also know more than he does—and it is my job to teach him the basics of life. Like how to go the fuck to sleep.