Ferber Method Sleep Training: Age to Use, Separation Anxiety, and Is It Harmful?

The Ferber Method Explained

Sleep training, or teaching your baby healthy sleep habits, can be confusing and frustrating. One of the most popular sleep training methods is The Ferber Method, also known as Ferberizing or graduated extinction. This method involves letting your baby cry at increasingly longer intervals until they are sleeping better and taking longer naps. Here’s everything you need to know about this sleep training method based on my 15+ years as a sleep consultant.

In This Article:

What is The Ferber Method?

The Ferber Method was developed by Dr. Richard Ferber, the director of The Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders, at Children’s Hospital Boston to help your child learn to sleep better. The method is outlined in detail in his book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems but if you don’t have time to read a book with 464 pages, here’s everything you need to know about Ferberizing.

This method is designed to help teach your baby or toddler how to self-soothe, sleep in longer stretches or through the night, and take longer naps. The main difference between this method and Cry-It-Out (or Extinction when you stay out of the room completely) is that you support your baby or toddler during the learning process by visiting them at increasing intervals for a period of time. I will outline a couple of example sessions below in more detail.

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Age to Use The Ferber Method

The best age for The Ferber Method is around 6 months old before your baby is sitting up and standing up. However, you want to wait until you stop swaddling your baby.

Some families start at 4 months old during the 4-month sleep regression while others wait until over a year old. There isn’t a “right” or “wrong” time and you know your baby best! However, I generally do NOT recommend Ferber Method sleep training for babies younger than 3-4 months old. Of course, every situation is different and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that will work for everyone.

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How Does The Ferber Method Work?

First, as with any sleep training method, you start by laying a healthy foundation for sleep. This means going through your pre-sleep training checklist, making any necessary changes to your baby’s sleep and feeding schedule, and having a way to keep track of the time. I cannot emphasize enough how the right schedule will make sleep training so much easier (and sometimes avoids sleep training altogether!).

Once you’ve laid the groundwork, you can start Ferberizing. Here’s the step-by-step process:

  1. Do your bedtime routine, ending with a consistent phrase or song.
  2. Lay your baby or toddler down drowsy but awake.
  3. Leave the room (or sit in a chair if you prefer to try to stay in the room).
  4. If your child starts to cry, start your timer. If your child is not crying, no need to start the timer.
  5. Once the timer goes off, go check in and offer comfort. Be sure to stop soothing and/or leave while your child is still awake.
  6. Repeat the check-in and comfort process at different intervals until your baby or toddler falls asleep.

But, what intervals should you use?

Which intervals to use can depend a lot on your baby’s intensity, how persistent they are, and your comfort level with crying. Some babies fuss a little while others scream their heads off. The book suggests starting with intervals of 3 minutes, 5 minutes, then 10 minutes. And, each day/night you are supposed to increase each of those intervals by 3-5 minutes. Here are a couple of examples for different temperament babies:

Example 1: Mild-Mannered Easy-Going Baby

  • Day 1 – Check 1: 3 minutes, Check 2: 5 minutes, Check 3+: 10 minutes
  • Day 2 – Check 1: 5 minutes, Check 2: 8 minutes, Check 3+: 12 minutes
  • Day 3 – Check 1: 8 minutes, Check 2: 12 minutes, Check 3+: 15 minutes
  • Day 4 – Check 1: 10 minutes, Check 2: 15 minutes, Check 3+: 20 minutes
  • Day 5 – Check 1: 12 minutes, Check 2: 18 minutes, Check 3+: 25 minutes
  • Day 6 – Check 1: 15 minutes, Check 2: 20 minutes, Check 3+: 25 minutes
  • Day 7 – Check 1: 20 minutes, Check 2: 25 minutes, Check 3+: 30 minutes

Example 2: Intense, Spirited Baby

  • Day 1 – Check 1: 3 minutes, Check 2: 5 minutes, Check 3+: 8 minutes
  • Day 2 – Check 1: 5 minutes, Check 2: 8 minutes, Check 3+: 10 minutes
  • Day 3 – Check 1: 8 minutes, Check 2: 10 minutes, Check 3+: 12 minutes
  • Day 4 – Check 1: 10 minutes, Check 2: 15 minutes, Check 3+: 20 minutes
  • Day 5 – Check 1: 12 minutes, Check 2: 18 minutes, Check 3+: 20 minutes
  • Day 6 – Check 1: 15 minutes, Check 2: 18 minutes, Check 3+: 20 minutes
  • Day 7 – Check 1: 15 minutes, Check 2: 18 minutes, Check 3+: 20 minutes

Why does this work?

The idea is that you are supporting your child as they learn a new skill. Just like they will fall on their bottom many times before actually learning to walk, they will have some failures until they succeed. By allowing them time to self-soothe, you are breaking the habit of them needing you to put them to sleep.

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How Long Does The Ferber Method Take?

Generally speaking, most babies will cry for an hour or less but there are a few persistent babies who cry for longer periods (1-2 hours) the first 2-3 nights. Many people will start to see progress within 3-4 nights though that doesn’t mean you will be “done.” If your baby is crying for over an hour for more than two nights, consider reevaluating your schedule or addressing the 5 things we recommend you do before you Ferberize.

I typically recommend being consistent for at least 1-2 weeks since it takes time to make new habits and every day might be a little different with your schedule and other variables.

If you’ve been sleep training for more than two weeks, that would be cause for us to look into other reasons your baby is crying for long periods of time. Keep in mind that some babies will continue to cry for a few minutes (5-10 at the most) long-term. Anything more than that, and I’d say sleep training is NOT working!

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What About Night Feedings?

In the book, Dr. Ferber says to NOT feed your baby at night after 3-4 months old. Keep in mind that, based on my 15+ years of experience as a sleep consultant working with families personally, when a baby can sleep all night without feedings varies significantly, especially if you are breastfeeding. Therefore, if you plan to implement The Ferber Method exactly as outlined without night feedings, then I recommend you wait until your baby is capable of going 11-12 hours without consuming milk. On average, this is 5-6 months old for Formula fed babies and 6-10 months old for breastfed babies. Take heart that many families can still use The Ferber Method even continuing to feed at night once or twice. Some families swear by the dream feed which is another option. I have helped countless families succeed with sleep training without night-weaning completely at all ages!

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What About Naps? Are Those Different?

Day and night sleep are handled by two different parts of the brain, so we typically address naps separately from nighttime sleep. The main difference with using The Ferber Method for naps is we put a limit of one hour to the sleep training session. If your baby hasn’t fallen asleep, we typically take a 1-hour break and then try again. Different babies need different approaches but this works for the majority of situations.

Nap training often does take longer than nights, though. Plan to commit to two weeks of consistency for optimum results.

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What About Separation Anxiety? And Is This Method Flexible?

Definitely! The best sleep training methods are those that you can adapt to fit your needs and circumstances. You can increase or decrease the amount of time between your check-ins as needed. You can also use the same check-in intervals for several days at a time, for example.

Babies go through peaks and valleys for separation anxiety beginning around 7 months old. If you are concerned your baby is going through a peak, consider waiting to sleep train, having shorter intervals, or consider sleep training while staying in the room. You can implement this same method by sitting on a chair in the room.

Be aware, however, that some children get really frustrated if their parents stay in the room during sleep training. It can be very confusing to have mom or dad so close by but not offer comfort or put the baby to sleep. Of course, the check-ins allow you to reassure your baby periodically, teaching them that whenever you leave, you come back, which is the primary reason for separation anxiety in the first place.

Finally, HOW you offer comfort during your check-ins is flexible, too. Some families prefer to soothe just with their voices, while other families will pat their babies’ heads, rub their backs, etc. Other families prefer to pick their children up briefly. All of these can work, provided you don’t inadvertently end up putting your child to sleep during one of your check-ins. That’s what your child is supposed to be doing on their own! The key is to find the right approach for your baby. The first few nights are usually the worst no matter what strategy you choose.

Is Ferber Method Sleep Training Harmful?

In general, The Ferber Method and sleep training, in general, is considered safe and not harmful to your baby. Crying for small durations of time with periodic reassurance from parents will not cause long-lasting damage. However, keep in mind that it is important to “fix” the right problem.

There are many reasons a baby wakes at night and letting a baby cry for many hours when he is hungry or sick would NOT be the right thing to do. There is a difference between letting a 4-month-old cry to get him to sleep 12 hours without eating when some 4-month-olds still need two nighttime feedings versus a 12-month-old waking every hour simply to be held at night and everything in between.

I strongly recommend that you view your baby’s sleep from a holistic perspective and ensure you are setting her up for success. You should look at the entire daytime schedule, feedings, health, etc. Lay the proper foundation and sometimes very little crying is necessary to help her sleep through the night!

Personalizing The Ferber Method

This article offers a general overview of how Ferber Method sleep training works – but putting this sleep training method into practice may be tough indeed! Many families wonder how to cope with the crying and fussing between check-in intervals, or how long to do the check-in process each night. If you want a more personalized approach to The Ferber Method, we can give you just that. Connect with us and we’ll guide you to the right resource!

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