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Ferberizing a Toddler

by Laura Agadoni

If you have a toddler with sleep problems, chances are someone might have told you about the Ferber method of sleep training. This program, developed by Dr. Richard Ferber, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital Boston, has become so much a part of parenting culture that many people refer to the method as “Ferberizing.” After his breakthrough 1985 book, “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems,” the Ferber method has been used by many parents who have a goal of everyone in the home getting a good night’s sleep.

The Ferber Method

Ferber’s book advocates letting children learn to soothe themselves to sleep instead of relying on the parent to do so with rocking, holding, talking to or getting into bed with the child. According to Ferber, the problem with soothing a child to sleep is that if the child wakes during the night, which could happen several times, he will cry out for you to come and soothe him back to sleep. In addition, if you wait in his room until he falls asleep and then tiptoe away, your child will wonder where you are if he wakes up during the night. You are breaking trust with your child by sneaking away once he falls asleep.

Getting Children to Self-Soothe

Teaching a toddler to self-soothe with the Ferber method involves letting the child cry and work out his sleep difficulties. The method does not entail simply letting your child cry all night long until he finally falls asleep. Instead, Ferberizing uses timed intervals between checking on your child and allowing him to cry or attempt to self-soothe. The check should be short: Go in your child’s room to reassure him that everything is OK and then leave. Eventually, your child should learn that if no one will soothe him to sleep, he needs to do so himself.

How it Works

Wait for longer intervals each time you check on your child, and wait longer intervals each night. For example, the first night, stay away for 3 minutes before checking on your child the first time. Wait for 5 minutes before checking a second time, and check after 10 minutes the third and any subsequent times until your child falls asleep. The second night, don't check the first time until 5 minutes have passed. Wait 10 minutes before checking a second time, and then check every 12 minutes. Eventually, you can work up to waiting 20 minutes before checking.

Toddler Behavior

Toddlers are notorious for delaying sleep. If they don’t learn to self-soothe, they are apt to delay bedtime in any number of ways that could include stalling, begging, crying or throwing a tantrum. Kids who’ve been Ferberized are less likely to throw bedtime tantrums, can settle at night within 10 minutes and are less likely to wake you during the night. Your toddler will probably be less cranky during the day, too, because he is getting a better night’s sleep.

The Nature of Sleep

Ferber stresses that before you can expect your child to sleep well, you must understand the nature of sleep. There might be an underlying problem that is causing your child's sleep problems. You might not have him on a good schedule and put him to bed at 7 p.m. during the week but keep him up until 11 p.m. on the weekends, for example. A simple adjustment can fix that: Put your child down for a nap at the same time each day and put him to bed at the same time each night. A 2-year-old should sleep a total of 11 1/2 hours: 9 3/4 at night and 1 1/2 hours during the day. A 3-year-old needs 11 1/4 hours of total sleep: 10 1/4 at night and an hour during the day.

Photo Credits

  • boy and his teddy image by Paul Moore from Fotolia.com