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Sleep Training; the Ferber method.

Let me paint you a picture. My baby girl was seven months old and for her whole life up until that point both myself and my partner had been rocking her off to sleep. We’d pace up and down the bedroom with her cradled in our arms until she was asleep. Then we’d put her down in her cot with the care you would take placing down an undetonated bomb. We’d tiptoe out of the room cursing that old creaky floor board on the way out and praying it wouldn’t wake her up.. If she woke whilst we were putting her down, we’d have to start the whole process again. When she woke in the night we’d be up again for however long it took to resettle her. I had just started my battle with breast cancer and was physically and mentally exhausted. It was then, when I was at the point of desperation, that I decided to start sleep training her. Although I was pushed to the decision it turned out to be one of the best I have made for both myself and my baby.

What is sleep training?

Sleep training, sometimes known as the ‘cry it out’ (CIO) method, is highly controversial. Parents and even professionals can still debate the topic until the cows come home. The idea is to teach your baby to soothe themselves to sleep without needing your assistance. At first this inevitably involves some crying, although the extent to which is individual to each baby. Some people think that it is harmful for the baby’s development to let them cry for any extended period of time. Some even claim it may be damaging to the brain synapses. Others dismiss this claim as ludicrous, after all babies cry. Crying is their only form of communicating their needs to you. So it wouldn’t really make sense for it to be a harmful process. 

It can on the surface appear a scary step to take. But once I began researching it properly I found that there are in fact two sub methods within the CIO method that are vastly different. 

The cry it out method.

The first is to me the true CIO method. Also known as the “total extinction” (of your involvement) method. This really is a case of putting your baby down and leaving them to cry themselves to sleep. For however long it takes. Each to their own of course but this one just doesn’t sit right with me. I am not remotely comfortable with leaving my daughter to cry indefinitely. We are evolutionarily wired to respond to our babies’ cries. Now admittedly in this day and age it is unlikely that they could be getting carried off by a saber toothed tiger. But there are still a myriad of things they could be trying to tell you that need attention. 

The second method is the ‘Ferber method’, also known as “gradual extinction” (of your involvement.) The aim with this is to gently and gradually teach your baby to soothe themselves to sleep. You let them cry but only for short intervals before going in and comforting them. Where the ‘total extinction’ method can, according to some human development experts, lead to an insecure attachment between the baby and it’s caregiver, the Ferber method promotes the regulation of self sleep whilst also reassuring your baby that you are there for them. For obvious reasons, this was the method I chose.

The Ferber method.

So what is the Ferber method, exactly, and when is best to start? Well, most experts agree that you can start when your baby is between four and six months of age. Before that babies still need to feed regularly throughout the night. You can start any time up until the age of two. It will however get harder the later you leave it, so younger is better. Choose a calm time to start when there are no big changes going on in your babies life. If they have a new caregiver or are in the midst of an illness it’s probably not the time. Ayla was on solid food when we started which I think also helped a lot. A full baby is a sleepy baby.

Then it is pretty simple; 

  1. Have a bedtime routine in place, if you don’t already. Our nightly routine is a warm bath, PJ’s on, a bottle (or of course boob if you are breastfeeding) then read some books. 
  2. Place your baby down in his/her cot sleepy but awake. Give them a dummy/paci if you use one- lights out and leave the room. 

You will now only go in to soothe your baby at regularly increasing intervals. To comfort your baby you can stroke their back/tummy or whisper to them calmly. But keep the light off, don’t pick them up and keep it short. In my experience the longer you stay in there the more worked up the baby becomes.

  1. For the first night go in after 3 minutes (only if your baby is still crying of course!) then 5 minutes, then 10 minutes. For any subsequent waking after that go in after 10 minutes. 
  2. On the second night first leave it for 5 minutes before going in, then 10 minutes, then 12 minutes and continuing with 12 minutes after that. 
  3. On the third night extend the times to 10 minutes, 12 minutes then 15 minutes. 

After that.

You can go on increasing the time before you go in by a few minutes in the nights following. For me 15 minutes was the maximum I felt OK with. Thankfully it worked wonders for us and by the second night Ayla was settling herself before even the initial 5 minutes was up. It’s as though something clicked in her brain. Even when she woke during the night -as all babies, children and even adults naturally do- she would be able to soothe herself back off to sleep. It felt like magic! 

Since then we have all gratefully enjoyed much better sleep and as a result much saner days. I’m not saying she sleeps all night every single night because that would be unrealistic. She’s not a robot after all and goes through sleep regressions, teething, and developmental leaps just like every other baby/toddler. But now I know that if her sleep starts slipping I can “top up” her sleep training using the Ferber method and it will get her back on track. Even now at nearly two and a half years old she still responds really well to it. 

Key Points.

First and foremost, listen to your intuition. If you think your baby could be in distress and needs you then you must respond to their needs. Like most mothers I can tell when my child is genuinely upset just from the tone of her cry. In those rare instances I will go in and pick her up without hesitation. You never know when your baby might for example be spiking a fever, have painful gas, may have vomited or even just had a terrible nightmare. It’s so important to respond to those needs. 

My second most valuable piece of advice is that once you have committed to sleep training, consistency is key. Stick to the method, follow the steps and don’t deviate. Repetition is the best way for your baby to learn, so follow the same procedure for nap times as well as bed times. Be sure that all caregivers, nannies, grandparents etc are doing the same thing.

If after a week of sticking to the plan your baby is still crying uncontrollably and not settling when you put them down, it’s time to wave the white flag. The reality is that no one method can or will work for every single baby. It’s absolutely fine, infact wise, to recognise when something is not working for you so that you can start trying something else. 

Good luck and sweet dreams! 

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I’d love to hear your opinions on and experiences with sleep training using the Ferber method. Please get in touch!

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