There are plenty of books available to parents who need help getting their older infant or toddler to sleep through the night. One of the most well-known books is “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems” by Richard Ferber.

Most parents have at least heard of the Ferber method, and mistakenly think his advice is to let your child “cry it out” all night until they exhaust themselves and finally fall asleep. But nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, the Ferber method is greatly misunderstood.

If you are a parent struggling to get your child to sleep through the night, we suggest you first read the entire book. It’s full of great information. Ferber reviews the stages of sleep, so parents can better understand why his interventions work. He also addresses many common sleep issues from infancy to adolescence, including:

  • nighttime fears
  • nightmares
  • night terrors
  • sleepwalking
  • bedwetting
  • disruptions in sleep schedules
  • bedtime routines

But most parents only know him for his approach to getting young children to sleep through the night. To better understand that approach, you first need to know what the real problem is: sleep associations.

Sleep Associations

Sleep experts agree that one of the biggest problems in getting a child to sleep through the night is the child’s sleep associations. Sleep associations are items or behaviors that the child uses to fall asleep at the beginning of the night. For example, if you always rock your child at bedtime, and she falls asleep in your arms before you put her in the crib, then that is her sleep association.

The problem is that she has associated falling asleep with rocking and being in your arms. So when she wakes up at night and she can’t put herself to sleep, she needs to be rocked in your arms to fall back asleep.

So the problem of waking up in the middle of the night starts at the beginning of the night. You must allow your child to fall asleep on her own, so that when she wakes up in the middle of the night, she can put herself back to sleep. This is called “self-soothing.” We all wake up in the nighttime, but adults know how to put themselves back to sleep. This vital skill is what Ferber is trying to get parents to teach their children.

His Progressive-Waiting Approach starts by having you put your child in the crib sleepy, but awake, and then leave the room. If she cries, you can check on her, but in increasing intervals of time. First wait three minutes, then five minutes, and then 10 minutes. Each time you check on her, the goal is to reassure her (and you) that she’s fine and you have not left her. Don’t spend more than a minute or two with her. You may console her, but the goal is not to get her to stop crying.

crying baby

Gradually lengthen the time between these checks each night. The first night, the intervals are three, five, and 10 minutes. The next night, they are five, 10, and 12 minutes. The next night, the intervals are 12, 15, and 17 minutes. The plan is simple in concept, and Ferber outlines exactly what to do each night. He states that after about four days, most children are sleeping through the night.

As you can see, this is not a “cry it out” plan. The Ferber method does not insist that you let your child cry all night, but gradually allow your child to learn to put herself to sleep.

Does It Work?

So does it really work? There are certainly parents who swear by this approach. And there are parents who swear at Ferber, because they were not successful. But the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that 19 different studies of this type of approach all showed a decrease in the number of night wakings. The Academy’s conclusion was that it is highly effective.

What’s a Parent to Do?

While the Ferber approach has been shown to be effective, remember that it may not be effective for everyone. There are other methods to getting your child to sleep through the night, and those others can also be helpful.

The point is, don’t dismiss Ferber just because you think he wants you to let your child cry all night. To give his method a fair shake, be sure to read the whole book, and if you decide to try the Ferber method, stick to it as closely as possible.