Who the Heck First Thought Up the Cry it Out Approach? PART II: Dr. Richard Ferber

(Note: This article is the second of a two part series. For the first part, see Who the Heck First Thought Up the Cry it Out Approach?)

Dr. Richard Ferber is the father of The Ferber Approach, often called Ferberizing. This is billed as the kinder, gentler approach to Holt’s Cry It Out approach.

Ferber’s method, described in his 1986 book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, recommends rather than simply abandoning your baby to cry until she stops, as Holt had recommended, that a baby be allowed to cry for a designated amount of time before being comforted. This, Ferber posits, teaches a baby to self-soothe.

Ferber recommends beginning bedtime with night-time rituals, putting baby in its crib, and then leaving the room to return at progressively increasing intervals to comfort the baby verbally or with a pat. But do not pick up baby.

On the first night of Ferberizing, you return first after three minutes, then after five minutes, and thereafter each ten minutes, until the baby is asleep. When she reawakens later in the night, you repeat the process.  If ever during this process, the baby vomits from excessive crying, you sneak into the room, wipe the floor, and continue with the Ferberizing.

Oh, and if baby gets an ear infection from all this crying, Ferber recommends discontinuing during the round of antibiotics that follows, and starting back up later.

So, just to be clear, my baby is so wildly upset during this process that he may vomit. Or develop an ear infection. And, yet I continue. I ignore my baby, clean up the vomit, do not hold him, and then leave the room. Can you see that this process was designed by a researcher in a lab and certainly not by a mother? I am a man, so I can say this: Only a man would have thought this up. And, specifically, a man in the “me decade” of the 1980s.

After the first night, the length of intervals increases. You return to the room to soothe baby after, for example, five minutes, then ten minutes, and thereafter each twelve minutes, until the baby is asleep.

Sometimes this takes days of dogged persistence, ignoring your parental instincts to comfort your baby. Ferber reassures us that while listening to your baby cry is hard to do, most babies do eventually give up calling for their parents and the crying diminishes on subsequent nights as the baby learns not to expect the parent to stay with him.

When asked, “But haven’t we simply evolved to co-sleep, that is, to sleep with our children?” Ferber tartly responds, “Certainly we should not return to the circumstances of our early ancestors and move our children out of heated homes and into caves, have them sleep on the ground, … and eliminate medical care, sanitation, and most clothing.”

So is that how it was until Holt and Ferber? Caves? No clothing? I’m so glad that Holt and Ferber have finally discovered how best to care for our children.

Furthermore, he states that co-sleeping worked in the past since “sexual encounters in these communities are usually not activities for the bedroom, but, instead, routinely take place in the fields.” I am sure he has watched one too many episodes of Little House.

And what of discipline for older children? Ferber is big on setting limits. Much like breaking a dog. What if your five year old leaves his room after lights out? Ferber says, set up a gate so she cannot leave: “The gate often becomes a symbol of this change, and the same child who fought the gate initially may now remind you to close it every night.” That’s exactly what I want. For my child to become most comfortable when incarcerated; for a gate to become his transitional object. To model the Stockholm syndrome.

If the gate does not do the trick and your child topples dressers, remove the dressers. Sometimes it’s even necessary to remove everything but a mattress from the room. I was expecting him to recommend padding the walls. This is the George W. Bush approach to diplomacy. I remember after 9/11 Noam Chomsky advised that before retaliating, the United States must ask, “Why do they hate us?” Parents should ask the same. We should ask, “Why is my child acting out? Why is she feeling the need to turn over the dresser?”

I’m always on the lookout for things that posterity will point to and say, “No! Tell me you didn’t?! How could you?” The way we now look at slavery. And I’m fairly certain that Ferber’s limit-setting approach will be one of them. It’ll be right up there with 3D ultrasounds and the fact that every teenager carries a cell phone in the pocket next to their genitals.

To be fair to Ferber, more recently, he has recanted. A bit. He admits, “There’s plenty of examples of co-sleeping where it works out just fine. My feeling now is that children can sleep with or without their parents. What’s really important is that the parents work out what they want to do.” And he feels that a family must find the approach that works for them. He says in interviews that he regrets some of the advice he’s given. He’s even been quoted as saying that he feels badly that child health professionals are encouraging parents to leave very young babies to cry, and that it really is A-OK to co-sleep.

He’s right. Studies repeatedly show that leaving babies to Cry It Out is a risk factor that predisposes kids to all kinds of physical and mental health problems later in life. A recent study found that when a baby is left to cry alone, her cortisol level shoots up. Cortisol is a stress hormone, the chemical your adrenal glands secrete when you are being chased by a tiger. This fact, that a crying baby left alone experiences stress makes sense. No one disputes this. But the study also found that, later, after she has been Ferberized, when the baby is left alone in her crib and does not cry, that her cortisol level still shoots up. The study concludes that she must still be experiencing stress. So why doesn’t she cry? Because she knows no one will come.

And now, again, I’m crying.

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