Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Ferber & our family

I think it is fair to say that sleep has been the most consistent challenge in my life as a parent so far. And given the staggering number of books on the topic of infant sleep it seems reasonable to say that that is the case for most parents out there. Oliver was born a dreadful sleeper, waking every 45 minutes for months, and Emmett seemed to become a terrible sleeper after a few months of my tutelage. One way or another, I make sleepless babies.

A few months ago things got real bad and just last week, nearing the breaking point I felt we had finally come to a crossroads of sleep deprivation and I felt in my heart that we had two, diametrically opposed options that would get us the sleep we needed.  Full time bed sharing, or the dreaded cry-it-out.

Although my heart likes the idea of snuggling up with my boys every night, my body and brain really can't take it. I have my own sleep issues, and throwing a wildly flailing toddler and a desperately clinging baby to the mix are a sure-fire way to make sure that by about day three I'm the crankiest mummy on the block.

And so it seemed we had to go in the exact opposite direct. You see, when Oliver was waking up every 45 minutes I looked to gentle, in-between options. I read The No Cry Sleep Solution and I read The Baby Sleep Book, and although I appreciated the loving, gentle approach, the advice in each boiled down to creating a positive sleep environment and the importance of a bedtime routine - two measures I'd implemented practically before Oliver was born, and both methods that had little to no effect on his sleep.

Heading down the same road with Emmett it seemed time to take real action and after being reassured by a few trusted friends and great mums who had done it themselves, I picked up a copy of Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems by famous parenting villain Dr. Ferber from the library and read the whole thing in one night. And frankly, it surprised me.

Of course, the technique is exactly what I expected it to be - you allow your baby to cry in bed until he falls asleep, with check ins at prescribed intervals but it had seemed to me, at least in attachment parenting circles, that Dr. Ferber must be a cold and heartless monster who encouraged parents to allow their children to suffer alone for their own convenience. Having now read his book I feel like poor Dr. Ferber has been handed an unfair rep, and for the most part (assuming that this method actually works for us - we're on day two and I don't want to make any sweeping claims of victory just yet) I'm a convert. Here's why:

He's damn convincing

The truth about parenting books is that most often parents select a book that will validate their plans and assumptions about parenting. We're not really looking for new ideas or opinions, we're looking to have our own ideas and opinions confirmed. So of course, having come to this book at a point of desperation, it was highly likely that I'd find Dr. Ferber's arguments convincing.

My former AP inner voice had lingering doubts but Dr. Ferber's firm and authoritative convictions started to sneak in. Here's the (paraphrased) analogy that won me over: If you catch your child playing with something dangerous, even only moderately so, you take it away. Just because he or she cries, you don't give it back because taking it away was for her own good.

It isn't a perfect analogy, but it has some truth in it. Sleep is important. Like, medically important. There are studies to that effect but I didn't need them to make this decision. I know how my kids feel when they're waking up every hour and a half, never mind how I feel, and it's not fair to them.

It may be true that in the most perfect world, children are parented around the clock, in sleep and awake, but we don't really live in that world, we live in a world where we get up for work or other children and we do it alone, not in a village of caretakers, so parental sleep is awfully important too.

He's more flexible than I expected

Although I'm sure it was due to pressure from outside forces, and not necessarily his own belief in the practice, Dr. Ferber offers sleep training solutions for parents who co-sleep, bed share and even those who still want to nurse their babies to sleep at the beginning of the night. I had some worries that somehow deciding to "sleep train" my baby would mean having to scrap some of the more attachment-y practices that I do find beneficial and natural but the approach is much less rigid than I thought it would be and there seems to be room for all kinds of parents.

His guidelines are fairly gentle

I've heard horror stories about parents letting their babies cry for hours with no result, just wailing alone into the night for hours with no comfort, but that isn't what Dr. Ferber suggests.

Of course this method does require that your baby cry alone in his crib. And my little Emmett has the saddest, most forlorn cry you've ever heard. But the actual practice of "gradual extinction" (kind of a horrible name?) lays out short intervals of crying, followed by visual and verbal comfort from parents. He recommends starting with a 3 minute wait, then 5, then 10 and no more for the first night, but he also emphasizes that parents might find that too difficult, and can decrease those times. The key is to have progressively longer periods of waiting, even if those periods are quite short each time.

I'm not going to say that it isn't excruciating to hear Emmett crying alone in his bed. It really is. When Oliver was a baby I was sure that crying alone would damage his psyche and stunt his development, with Emmet I'm not so convinced, but those fears still lurk in my deepest mind when I listed to him cry.   That's the interesting thing about shifting your beliefs and values - you never lose the knowledge of what you used to believe, and it is hard not to let those old certainties shake your new convictions (ask me when the last time I almost prayed was). So while I'm impressed by all of the things I didn't expect in Dr. Ferber's book, there's still a part of me that doubts my commitment to the program. I think if I had a baby who cried for hours for weeks at a time, I'd be buying a king sized bed. And maybe that's the road we'll end up going down, but for the next few nights at least, we're Ferberizing and we're (mostly) confident about it.


  1. Hey Meg, first, love to be reading your posts again. I kind of fell out of blogging (writing and reading). So was pleasantly surprised to see all the posts I had missed!

    We did this for Audrey, and it's hard. Of course it's hard. I wanted to quit every night. But harder still at a certain point is, as you mention, trying to function on no sleep. It's not something I'm equipped to do (is anyone?). And my god I hear you on the torture that is a wildly flailing toddler in your bed at night; cannot imagine adding a baby to the mix. I have little patience for the judgement and pressure that accompanies choices about sleep. Like it's not really something you can just choose to sacrifice indefinitely (obviously breastfeeding and the early days of baby-rearing are a different story) without also losing something else - clarity, health, uh, your sanity. And you nailed it: we're often doing this alone - there's no village of support anymore.

    This method worked, eventually, for Audrey. For the most part she sleeps through the night. She still has bad nights, weeks even. And sometimes we give in and will bring her in to our bed, but then she starts to expect this every night and the whole nightmare begins again. So we inevitably get to a point where letting her cry (it only ever takes one night now) is the only way to get her back in her bed. It also helps that we can explain it to her, let her know that when she wakes up in the night we aren't coming to get her (it's just as hard to write that as it is to say it!), but that we love her and will see her in the morning; she doesn't like it, but she seems to understand this when we say it. And then in the morning we ask her if she was upset in the night - even though we already know whether she has cried or not - and tell her we wish we could be there to help her go back to sleep but that we need sleep too and that even though we don't come to see her in the night, we still love her. It's surprising how accepting she is of this. So, it's still hard, and we have nights when it's too hard to listen to, but it's also super encouraging to know that, well, it can work.

    If this method doesn't work for you all, I really hope you find something that does. Because no sleep is horrendous and awful and gross. Good luck with it, my friend.

    1. Probably should just send an email at this point - what a bad blogger I am.. but thanks for the encouragement. The sleep thing is starting to feel less like a challenge! I've got to try and connect offline - I'm anxious to check out Guelph's target.. and get a visit before you're in the thick of baby time again!

    2. I rewrote that comment a kazillion times - also should have just emailed ;) Guelph target date is in order. Need to finish up a draft of my diss intro and then my time is more my own. Any day now!


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