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Ferber is a god

October 13, 2008 - Betsy Bethel
Dr. Richard Ferber is my hero. The Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center director at Children's Hospital Boston is author of the book, "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems," which is legendary in parenting circles. People tend to have strong opinions about him and his "cry it out" method: They swear by him or they can't stand him. He has been practically demonized by many pro-attachment theory parents as cruel and damaging to a child's mental health.

I used many principles of attachment theory myself (nursing on demand, wearing my baby). But when hanging out in pro-attachment circles, I used to gloss over the fact that I "Ferberized" Emma at 4 months old. I actually felt a little guilty about it. Yet my friends were amazed that I didn't "have to" rock or nurse Emma to sleep at naptime or bedtime. I just put her in her crib -- awake -- and she fell asleep on her own. Bedtime was pretty much a breeze for two years.

If you read my blog regularly, you know bedtime turned stormy for us about a month ago. I'm now convinced that when Hurricane Ike blew through the Valley on a Sunday night in September, it scared the bejeepers -- and the Ferber training -- right out of Emma. While at first she was genuinely frightened, I believe after a few days her insistence at my staying by her side until she fell asleep simply became a bad habit -- and one that I went along with for much too long.

It wasn't good for any of us. She was distressed and losing sleep, which is a terrible thing to happen to a rapidly developing brain and body.

Things came to a head Saturday. Nap time was a nightmare. I had a notion to try to get her to go to sleep without me, and by her screams, you would have thought she was being torn limb from limb. When I went back in to comfort her, she thrashed like a child possessed. My husband had had it. He swung into action (hanging onto the end of his rope) and eventually coaxed the imp to sleep. He was distraught, and I felt pressured (real or imagined) to "fix" this problem.

During Emma's nap, I brushed up on key tenets of Ferber's book, essentially arming myself. At bedtime, I felt confident and equipped; I had a plan. We did our normal bedtime routine -- a little bit later, as Ferber suggests -- and then I kissed her goodnight and left the room. I stood outside her door, held the handle tightly, and gritted my teeth as she wailed pathetically. She pulled on the door and begged me to open it, to come back, to cover her up. She bawled that she was thirsty, that she had to go potty, that she wanted me.

Make no mistake, it was brutal. (Thank goodness Dave was out of the house at the time.) But rather than surrender immediately, I stuck to the plan and, after two minutes, I went in. She stopped crying immediately. I tucked her in, kissed her and left the room. A repeat performance for another four minutes. I rested my forehead against the hallway wall and closed my eyes as she screamed. But I knew she wasn't hurt and that she was going to be fine.

After four minutes I went back in. As I laid her down and pulled up the blanket, I explained in a soothing voice that she was re-learning how to go to sleep on her own, that she would be OK, that I loved her and that Mommy and Daddy would be so proud when she woke up in the morning. I left. She went ballistic again.

Six minutes later, as soon as I walked in the door, she wiped her own tears and got back in bed herself. She laid down. I kissed her. She rolled over and nestled into her pillow. "Goodnight, Mommy," she said. "See you in the morning."

I left the room, a bit stunned. I listened at the door: Not a peep. I went to my room and sat on my bed and waited 10 minutes. When I checked on her, she was sound asleep. Total time elapsed from the first goodnight kiss to dreamland: about 15 minutes.

She woke up once during the night, and I took her back to bed. We praised her up and down the next morning. Dave wasn't sure he liked the method when I told him how she reacted at first. But he had to admit it had worked.

Sunday nap time, same routine. Asleep in six minutes. Sunday night, same routine, but asleep after only three minutes. I felt triumphant. I daresay my husband was impressed. Last night, all three of us slept through until morning -- AND in our own beds -- for the first time in about a month.

I no longer feel the least bit guilty about being a Ferber fan. If your child is having any type of problem sleeping, I highly recommend his book (the updated version released in 2006 -- which includes tips for successful co-sleeping). In addition to detailing his sleep method, he explains the physiology of sleep, patterns of sleep, sleep associations (good and bad), sleep disturbances (like night terrors), and gives suggestions for children who are scared at night or wet the bed, among other things.

Ferber saved our sanity -- and quite possibly our marriage -- this weekend!

-- -- --

Some recent "out-of-the-mouths-of-babes" moments:

After I sang, "And down will come baby, cradle and all": "No, Mommy, that's not how it ends. You have to catch the baby!"

After seeing me with my dark plum lipstick on for the first time: (Giggle) "You're a clown!"

After kissing Mi-ma on the cheek: "Oooo! Squishy!"

 
 

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