Many a sleep-deprived mother has turned to the internet in desperation, searching for a way to quickly solve their baby’s inconvenient habit of waking up multiple times in the night. Or they may be exhausted by their baby’s need for support to fall asleep in the form of rocking or other comfort techniques. Unfortunately, many of these exhausted, hard-working and vulnerable mothers then find themselves drawn towards so-called ‘Ferberization’. This refers to the process behind the Ferber Method, a particularly damaging form of sleep training that not only harms infants, but negatively impacts their mothers and the family as a whole.
You can read my broader article on the damage caused by sleep training as a whole, but in this post we will look specifically at the harm caused by the Ferber Method.
What is the ferber method & how does it work?
The Ferber Method (also known as ‘Ferberisation’ and ‘controlled crying’) is a form of Cry It Out sleep training that employs the ‘graduated extinction’ approach. The full ‘extinction method’ involves leaving a baby in their cot until they cry themselves to sleep. The ‘graduated extinction’ endorses leaving the baby to alone for increasing periods of time to get them used to crying themselves to sleep more slowly.
Advocates of the graduated approach claim it is kinder on the baby than the extinction approach, since a parent can go into the room at set intervals to ‘comfort’ the baby. However, in this approach, parents are told not to pick the baby up. They are also often told not to feed the baby or even make eye-contact. This is despite the fact that crying is the baby’s only form of communicating their needs, and emotional support or food may actually be the best thing for them.
People are led to believe that sleep training helps your baby learn how to settle themselves to sleep, or ‘self soothe’. Babies, however, lack the brain development necessary to be able to accomplish this. They also lack the physical skills they would require to fulfill any specific needs they have in order to feel safe enough to sleep. For example, if they’re too hot to sleep they can’t open a window or remove their sleeping bag. As adults we can fulfill a whole host of our own needs that need fulfilling in order to sleep soundly, but we cannot expect immobile or newly mobile infants to do the same.
Rather than helping them settle themselves, the extinction methods described above ‘work’ to get the baby to go to sleep by teaching them that, no matter how hard they cry, their needs will not be met. Eventually, the baby simply gives up and goes to sleep, even when they need help.
The history of the ferber method
The Ferber Method is named after its originator, Dr. Richard Ferber, who first described the process in his 1985 book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. The foundations of the method, however, were established much earlier in the 1800s.
As the Global North went through the Industrial Revolution, working parents (mothers in particular) discovered that the presence of infants in their lives made it difficult to function within the workplace. A number of infant “experts” began to emerge, prescribing a variety of methods for making young children adapt and conform to adult requirements. Rather than base infant and child care approaches on what is biologically normal and desirable, these voices started to shift cultural attitudes towards something far less natural and more neglectful.
Mothers were told not to hold their babies for more than 10 minutes a day, lest they “mollycoddle” them. Intuition and learned maternal knowledge was derided in favour of more “scientific” approaches (that weren’t actually based on good scientific practice). The ground was also set for sleep training methods through practices such as leaving babies to cry in order that they “expand their lungs“. For example in the 1894 book The Care and Feeding Of Young Children, Dr. Luther Emmett Holt writes:
“What should be done if a baby cries at night? One should get up and see that the child is comfortable—the clothing smooth under the body, the hands and feet warm, and the napkin not wet or soiled. If all these matters are properly adjusted and the child simply crying to be taken up, it should not be further interfered with“
Although we might like to think that Victorian approaches to infant care are a world away from our modern attitudes, sadly the dehumanisation of children we see in a quote such as this one is still present.
How is the ferber method harmful to babies & toddlers?
There are a number of ways in which the Ferber Method is harmful to babies, toddlers and their families:
Neurological Damage Caused By Excess Cortisol
Controlled crying techniques such as the Ferber method intentionally leave babies in a state of distress for prolonged periods of time. High levels of cortisol are released during times of distress and trauma. Therefore babies who endure sleep training experience intense periods of time when cortisol floods their developing brains.
Cortisol in small amounts is usually no problem, but in higher quantities, regular doses and in the vulnerable, developing brain of an infant it has the potential to cause lasting damage to the brain.
The possible long-term side effects of regular states of distress include stunted growth of the hippocampi (the area of the brain responsible for cognition and memory), chronic disease including lung and cardiovascular disease, and behavioural problems later in childhood.
Your Child Learns They Cannot Depend On You For Help In The Night
The Ferber Method tries to to artificially force an infant to sleep alone and through the night without asking for help when they need it. This goes against the biological and evolutionary instinct of being a responsive and nurturing caregiver.
The fundamental issue with teaching your child not to disturb you in the night is this: they learn not to disturb you in the night even when they need to and really should. They don’t know or understand the difference between a “superficial” problem and an “important” problem. To them it is ALL important. A child’s needs are just as important at 4am as they are at 4pm.
For decades, infant and child development specialists have shown that responsive caregiving which attends to a young infant’s needs as and when they arise is the best approach to take. Even if the timing isn’t what we would like it to be, mothering at night is just as important as mothering during the day.
It May Increase The Risk Of SIDS
Sleep training methods including the Ferber Method rely on the baby sleeping in a separate room to their parents. This is unsafe for babies under 6 months old and possibly under 12 months old due to an increased SIDS risk.
It Damages The Biological Mother-Infant Attachment Bond
Mothers who respond to their baby’s nighttime needs have more securely attached babies, who will then grow up to be more secure adults.
These hormonal, physiological bonds between mother and baby are severed through the process of sleep training, including with the Ferber Method. Some studies suggest that mothers aren’t as biologically connected with their babies once sleep training has been completed.
The consequence of breaking this attachment bond at a crucial period of brain development is a risk of longer-term personality and behavioural disorders including:
- Developmental delays Children who have suffered from a broken attachment bond may miss out on normal brain development processes that are important for speech and language, social behaviour and emotional self-regulation
- Disordered eating Children with attachment problems often engage in disordered eating practices. These include binge eating, food hoarding, secretly pocketing food and eating too quickly and beyond fullness
- Harmful self-soothing practices This is an extreme response but a very real one. Children whose emotional needs go unmet can turn to habitual practices such as rocking back and forth, deliberately banging their heads and other self-harm behaviours
- Aggression Due to not having their own emotions responded to consistently, some children may take out their feelings of frustration, anger and insecurity on others.
It Causes Stress & Anxiety To The Parents
The stress and anxiety the Ferber Method causes the parents (particularly the birth mother for biological reasons) has a huge impact, as it is a deeply unpleasant and stressful practice to inflict upon your household. Trying to impose this strict, unrealistic regime on babies often causes many weeks of distress for everyone involved.
It can also cause arguments and rifts between parents and their extended families. Many couples experience deep tension and terrible arguments due to their differing opinions on how to approach sleep.
Sleep training culture imposes all sorts of “shoulds” and “should-nots” on babies and their parents. But what if we just trusted the mother or other carers of the baby to respond to their child’s needs instead? Surely that would result in much happier, more harmonious households.
Is the ferber method worth it?
Perhaps one of the biggest arguments against using the Ferber Method, or any other method of sleep training, is that it doesn’t even work in the long-term!
A study that sought to prove the long-term effectiveness of sleep training performed randomised follow ups to sleep trained and non-sleep trained children. It found there was absolutely no difference in how they slept at night.
Meanwhile, take a look through any regular Facebook mum group. You’ll find dozens of stories about parents needing to “retrain” their babies and toddlers all over again.
Sleep training may be sold to you as ‘a few difficult nights’ that you plough through and then it’s over. In reality you’ll probably need to revisit those tearful nights again and again for months or even years to come.
Conclusion: What can you do instead of the ferber method?
There are many things you can do to support your precious little one in the journey to dreamland. I’ve written a whole article on this subject, so do check out my Top 15 Alternatives To Sleep Training article. If you are in the midst of a sleep regression, I’ve got you covered with this article too.
You can also download my FREE ethical sleep guide below, which includes my top approach for working with a baby’s biology for better quality sleep.
I hope you have found this article on how the Ferber Method is harmful to babies helpful. If you would like to learn more about the research against sleep training methods, please see my more in-depth article here.
Meanwhile, keep holding your baby and don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about it. Far from creating the “bad habits” sleep training culture would chastise you for, you only deepen and strengthen your bond with your baby. All the evidence is in favour of us following our biological instincts as mothers and responsively nurturing our babies, so don’t let anyone try to take that away. Especially not Richard Ferber.