Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In Defense of Cry It Out/ the Ferber Method

If you told me before I actually had a child that I would be writing a blog post defending the practice of crying it out, I would have laughed. I had no intention of sitting outside my child's bedroom door listening to him wail a la Mad About You. I read books while I was pregnant about mothers being genetically predispositioned to respond to their infant's cries. I read The Happiest Baby on the Block, which points out that babies in the womb are held and fed 24-7, so it is impossible to “spoil” a newborn by holding them too much, or feeding them too often. This all worked well for us- I was the mom who kept having to check the baby because it seemed that he just never did anything but sleep. The pediatrician had to tell me to quit waking him up to feed him. He slept through the night without us really having to do anything, which was a huge blessing since I was working at that time. We had to get up at 6 am for work. If the baby woke up at 5, I could walk into his room, tell him it wasn't time to wake up yet, and he would go back to sleep. (Keep reading- don't hate me just yet...)

Then we hit six months or so. Teeth started coming in, the baby could sit up on his own and I wasn't working anymore. The grandparents were visiting and the baby woke up at 4 am. I jumped out of bed and ran into his room, wanting to make sure that he didn't wake the visiting grandparents. I figured his teeth must be bothering him, or he must be hungry, so I nursed him, and he went back to sleep. Perfect- no problem, no crying it out. This became our routine for a while... and then several weeks... and then I couldn't remember the last time he slept through the night. He would wake up about 4 and I would nurse him, but then he stopped going back to sleep. He'd look at me after nursing for close to an hour and be ready to play, to start his day. He wasn't napping well during this time either, so we were both bleary eyed and quite cranky. I am not proud of my parenting skills during that time. I was getting very little sleep, barely functioning. I was constantly fighting with my husband and on edge all the time. I literally could not function with the amount of sleep we were getting, and I can't imagine it was much fun for the baby either.

Enter Dr. Ferber, the supposed sleep expert. I went to the library and checked out the latest edition of his book. I am by no means an expert on the subject, but the major points that I remember from the book made a lot more sense that I thought they would. Teaching children good sleep habits, including being able to fall asleep on their own if they wake during the night, is an invaluable skill. Children should be able to fall asleep on their own and stay asleep all night long. The Ferber Method (or what I remember of the method from a read a few months back) advocates training your child to fall asleep on their own gradually, yes, by allowing them to cry it out (CIO). It's actually a lot more humane than I thought before actually reading the book. The idea is to let the child know that you as the parent are there, but that they need to fall asleep without your intervention. On the first night of Ferberization, you allow the child to cry it out for a short amount of time (as little as a few minutes, I think- going off memory here) and then go back into the room and comfort them. The amounts of time that you allow the child to cry it out gradually increases until he or she falls asleep. The child is never left to cry without parental contact for more than 30 minutes.

So we embarked on our Dr. Ferber journey. The next night when baby T. woke up, I went into his bedroom, made sure that he was not wet, hurt, or otherwise in need of something, then explained that it was still nighttime and he needed to go back to sleep. Then I would set the kitchen timer, glue myself to a chair right outside his bedroom door, and read Dr. Ferber. I would go in after the recommended time, remind the baby that he was okay and that it was time to sleep. And then I would curse Dr. Ferber. What the hell did he know anyway?? There were nights that I HATED the man, his book, life in general. It was torture to sit there and listen to baby T cry. All I wanted to do was go in there, pick him up and do whatever I possible could to make him stop. But I'd tried that- I'd tried letting him get up in the middle of the night, nursing him, rocking him, walking him, begging him, and it got us nowhere. So he cried. It was miserable.

The longest baby T ever cried was two hours. He woke up at 3 am and I went in to him and told him that he needed to go back to sleep- it was still night time. I was in his room again at 3:30, again at 4 and again at 4:30. According to Dr. Ferber, 5 am is morning, so at 5, baby T got to come out. It was a huge relief. I think, but don't quote me, I nursed him and he went back to sleep. It had been a L O N G night for us both. The next night, it only took three times of me going in there to remind him it was night time and he fell back to sleep on his own. More progress was made the following night when I didn't have to go in more than once. We finally slept through the night again.

I'm not going to claim that thing have been perfect since then. Baby T still doesn't have a great nap schedule. To be honest, he's been waking up again in the middle of the night. When we were on vacation, there were nights that he was up every two hours. There are nights though, that he does sleep through, and on the nights that he wakes up, I can explain to him that it's time to sleep and he generally settles himself back down. I am a very proud mamma when I hear him cry out in the middle of the night, then hear him turn on his musical glowworm and settle himself back to sleep without needing me at all. We are both getting more sleep and the difference in baby T is amazing. He laughs more, has fewer meltdowns and is actually less clumsy then when he wasn't sleeping.

So where is this post coming from? Well, it's actually in response to a post written by Hobo Mama, in which she argues against CIO. I like Hobo Mama, I agree with a lot of her posts, and I don't think she's necessarily wrong about this. I just know that for us, not using CIO was not working. After reading her post this morning, I felt like a bad mom. When I put my child down for his nap and he cried, and I let him, I felt like a bad mom. The alternate title of this post could be, “Why and How I am not a bad mother even though I let my kid cry it out.” I hope that maybe, for someone else, the post will serve as the “What and How you are not a bad mother either even if you let your kid cry it out” post. My purpose in writing is NOT to attack Hobo Mama, Attachment Parenting or those who choose not to use the CIO method, it's simply to say, that didn't work for us, and this did. Also, me feeling like a bad mother is not the fault of Hobo Mama- I get to a place of self doubt without a ride from anyone else, thanks.

Hobo Mama's main point, in bold, is, “Believe your baby has something of value to say to you.” I'm right there with her on that one- I don't think that baby T cries just for kicks and giggles. I believe that when he cries, it's because he has something to express and that's his only way to do it. That being said, I'm not convinced that when he cries when I put him down to sleep, it means that he needs me to be right there in the room with him. I think it's just as possible that he's saying, “I'm tired (or overtired) and I'm mad that I need to sleep. I want to play. I don't want to stop and take a nap.” I feel this way as an adult. I know how much sleep I need in order to be healthy, to be a good mom and good wife. And yet, I constantly rationalize staying up just a few more minutes to finish a blog post, or read one more chapter, or finish some household task that I'm convinced needs to be done at 11 pm. I would LOVE to be one of those people who survives on four hours of sleep every night. I know that's not me, and honestly, sometimes that makes me mad. I don't want to go to bed. Isn't it possible that my son feels the same way? Couldn't this be what he's communicating with his cries? And isn't it my job as his mother, his GOOD mother, to make sure that he sleeps, that he gets what he needs?

So if we've established that my child needs sleep, then why not get him sleep without the crying? I've tried! I promise I've tried! I've tried rocking, nursing, driving, walking, begging, bribing and praying the child to sleep. I've tried sitting in his room with him. I've tried rubbing his back in the crib. I've tried music. We have a solid bedtime routing with stories and cuddles. We use the lavender bath soap. We tried co-sleeping and it wasn't for us- for any of us, baby included. If he falls asleep nursing and I try to put him into the crib, he wakes up MAD. Same deal with the car. He won't sit still anymore for me to rock him. The begging and bribing seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The best and fastest way to get him to sleep is to leave him in his crib to get mad about having to sleep in the first place. After he makes his feelings known on the subject, he generally settles himself down for a nap. Sleeping at night has fortunately come a lot easier for us and these days he goes down at night without much fuss, thankfully.

To conclude this VERY LONG blog post, I just want to say that this is what worked for us- maybe it will work for you too, maybe not. This is what allowed me to provide sleep for my child when nothing else I did seemed to be working. My “baby” is now thirteen months old and was about eight months old when I started letting him cry it out. My feeling about letting a newborn cry it out are very different. In no way would I advocate leaving a hungry baby or wet baby to cry it out. I knew/ know that my child's basic needs were met before concluding that what he truly needed was sleep.


  1. I'm glad I came across this in my blog reader, b/c I'm apparently terrible at figuring out when I've been linked to. Anyway, obviously the title caught my eye, as did the Mad About You clip, b/c that's one of our favorite episodes. (Surprised? :)

    Ahhh...yes, the Bad Mother thing. Been there, bought the t-shirt. I really have no intention of guilting people when I write; I just write passionately, from my heart, and sometimes in a snarky way, and...I don't know. I do believe what I'm saying, but I would say it differently if it were to someone's face, you know? When I started blogging, no one read anything, so I could be as obnoxious as I wanted! And now, I realize I need to think of the hearts of the people reading. Which is not a bad thing.

    Anyway, I want to agree with a few things here: Sleep is good. Not sleeping is bad. I have a saying, one I say to myself: Everything's crap without sleep. By that I mean, every time I look around at my life and see it as a big crumbling mess and think that everyone hates me and am sure nothing will ever, ever work out right again, I stop and ask myself, How many hours of sleep did you get last night? And if the number is less than 7, I tell myself the corollary to the above: Everything will look better once you get some sleep. Because it does, and sometimes you do what you have to to get that sleep.

    For us, cosleeping and breastfeeding through the night has worked, but I understand that it doesn't work for everyone, and that's a tough call. Some people (working parents, parents with multiple kids, etc.) have schedules that don't allow for flexibility, and I am (unfairly) blessed in that regard, since I can sleep usually whenever I please. Anyway, I'm wondering if there's a middle ground somewhere, if needed, of intentional sleep techniques where the parent can still be present and responsive? I thought these tips were helpful, but maybe sometimes nothing seems to work. I know one thing that does is time -- eventually that baby will grow up and start sleeping better -- but when you're chronically sleep deprived, eventually is hard to wait for! I do understand that.

    Anyway, I'm going to fill up your comment page, so I'll stop now, but thanks for writing this response!

  2. Oh, I just realized you went and told me you'd posted this, which should have been my big clue. Apparently I can't read for comprehension. Oh, well, at least I ended up here anyway!

  3. I really liked this post. As I write this I'm desperately trying not to go pick up my crying daughter. She's 10 months old and wakes up 10 or more times a night. I can't take it anymore. We're all miserable without sleep and she's just not a happy baby during the day when she won't sleep at night. She's obviously miserable.

    I don't have the advantage of magic breasts. She and her (sleeping)twin brother were preemies and never learned to nurse, so I express for them. It's just not the same comfort as nursing is though.

    She won't eat at night when she wakes up, so I don't believe she's hungry. She just wants me to stand, sway and cuddle her. At 3 in the morning, on her 5th wake up... I'm not always sure I'm safe holding her. There's several times that I think that I'm about to drop her.

    Anyways, your post is a great comfort to me. Hopefully she'll learn to sleep like your little guy did. Thanks for the great post.

  4. Good luck Chloe! I am hoping that both you and your little ones are enjoying some sweet dreams right now! I think that it's AWESOME that you are expressing milk for your babies. I don't think that I would have the patience to do that- taking care of them + having time to pump- that's a lot on you. Kudos! And my breasts are far from magic- my little boy will gladly sleep while nursing, but he gets QUITE upset if I have the audacity to put him down in his crib! It's almost worse when he falls asleep nursing now since he does get so mad when I put him down.

    Hang in there- it will be tough at first, but hopefully it will mean more sleep for all of you in the long run. Thanks for reading, and especially for commenting!

  5. I've been reading on the CIO method for a while. My daughter, Emily, is now 18 months old. for about four months i was getting up to put a pacifier in her mouth to get her back down to sleep. this is on top of having to hold her down in the crib until she fell asleep.

    One night, i just said screw it. this is it! this is the last night i will force you to sleep. as a dad, i love my daughter and only have whats best for her in my mind. she needs sleep!

    after four days of the ferber method, she's sleeping away, not waking in the middle of the night.

    i want to thank you for giving everyone as detailed a post as you have, because it fills in a lot of murky areas on how some parents may be feeling, and what to do when you're freakin out!

    thanks for the great read, and good luck!

  6. HI Emily's dad- thanks for the kind words! I'm glad your little one is getting some sleep.

  7. You just made my night easier... as I sat here and listened to my daughter cry for 30 minutes on day 4 of this process... she did much better last night, oh well, two steps forward, one step back... and because this post was so long, no more crying! Thanks!

  8. Hey Wendy- I'm thrilled beyond belief that I could help! My son has "relapses" from time to time, but I am so proud when I hear him stir in the middle of the night and go back to sleep all by himself! I hope that your daughter is doing well.

  9. I found your post very helpful as I too like the others was listening to my daughter cry her little eyes out as I read your post. It's nice to know I'm not the only one out there that feels this way and goes through the same scenario. I was actually dumbfounded how alike our stories are I mean to an absolute T! Wierd. Take care. Sharlene

  10. HI Sharlene! I hope that your little one is getting some sleep and that she learns how to fall asleep quickly! Hang in there.

  11. I'm reading this almost two years later.. how is your little guy sleeping now?? ;) After 10 months of GRUELING, every hour wake ups, we are finally "Ferberizing" our little man. As much as we resisted it, the sleepless nights were taking a toll on our day to day lives, marriage and friendships. We just finished our second night and I am tearing up as I am writing this... He did his first 8 hour stretch since BIRTH!!! Can I tell you how amazing I feel right now??? I feel stupid for feeling so guilty about letting him cry. The first night he "angry" cried, but last night he only whined when when we put him down. (Albiet for an
    hour, but still!) I suddenly feel like the sun is shining and I may actually be able to achieve some of my goals in life.. ALL BECAUSE OF ONE NIGHT OF SLEEP!! A night of sleep that I wouldn't have gotten had I not decided to give crying it out a real shot. Thank you for posting this and for helping through my struggle!!!

  12. COngratulations Rachel! I hope that it is still going well 10 days later! My little man is doing okay... we still struggle with wake ups sometimes and night terrors too. It's tougher now that he can talk. Crying is bad- don't get me wrong- but actual words are worse, I think. He can also cajole and negotiate with a little manipulation thrown in there too! I was thrilled that when I put him down for a nap today, he went to sleep by himself in 10 minutes. That's a HUGE victory for us as it generally takes a good 30 minutes to get him to sleep and a lot of that is rubbing his back, threatening, begging... awful- my least favorite part of the day and almost not worth it!

    Anyway, thanks so much for visiting my dusty blog... one of these days I might just shock everyone and start posting again!! :-)

  13. My daughter never slept well and was always rocked to sleep only to wake 20 min later. She NEVER slept. I let her cry to sleep and she started taking 2 hour naps. It was incredibly painful to hear her cry but I never looked back. She is the one that it has benefited because she was well rested and no longer moody during the day.

    My son on the other hand is rocked or patted to sleep and sleeps for how ever long he needs so I guess I don't need to with him but I'm going to anyway :)