16 Things All Parents Need To Know About The 'Cry It Out' Method

There is probably nothing more controversial in the world of parenting as the “cry it out” method of sleep training.

There is probably nothing more controversial in the world of parenting as the “cry it out” method of sleep training. There probably will never be something that causes so much strife between parents. The “cry it out” method is a way of sleep-training your little one, it is something that was done by generations of parents about 30 years ago, but in this modern world it is something that shocks a lot of people.

The thought of leaving your baby to cry until they fall asleep, seems awfully cruel to a lot of people, and this is mostly due to incorrect information on how this method is supposed to be done. The reason I placed quotations around the name of this method, is because that is not what the method is called. It is more correctly called the Ferber method, named after the man that came up with this sleep-training guide.

I think we all could always use more information about everything, it is the best way to debunk the myths or misconceptions of this way of sleep-training. It is important to know that a family has to do what works best for their family. I did the Ferber method when sleep training, and it worked very well for my family. Let’s face it, no mom carries her baby and thinks that they will just leave them to cry one day. Unfortunately, we all sometimes face our breaking point. Mine was when my daughter woke up every 45 minutes to nurse herself back to sleep. I knew I had a problem that I had to fix, I was a mess.

This will not be an article about the pros vs. cons of this method, as I am sure you can all find your own information on that. This is simply 15 things to know about the Ferber method, let’s all try and clear the air.

16Who Is This Ferber Guy?

If you are someone out there who doesn’t know who Ferber is, let me fill you in. Richard Ferber is a pediatrician, and the founder and former director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston. He released a book in 1985 called Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, a book that I purchased before I tried his method, it is a wonderful read about different sleep problems that your child can face at different stages of development.

His method is simple, it involves teaching a baby or child to sleep by letting them learn the art of soothing themselves. This method has been dubbed the “cry it out” method, although Ferber never calls it this in his book. He has publicly stated that the goal of this method is not to make your child cry, but that crying is often a side effect. So, now that we have a glimpse at his resume, let’s delve into his method.

15When Do You Do This Method?

There is a large debate on when you should sleep train a baby. The right answer is whenever you and your doctor feel it is necessary. Most professionals, and this includes Dr. Ferber, agree that you simply can not sleep train a newborn, that means no sooner than 3 months of age. Times have changed, as my mother did the “cry it out” method when we were all about 8 weeks all. This was also when the popular tip was to put cereal in our bottles to help us sleep longer.

We now know that none of these tips, tricks and methods are safe or even effective. Newborns need to eat often, it is important for their growth, and they simply do not have large enough stomachs to hold food for very long. So, 3-months is the minimum age you should make any effort to sleep train our little one.

14Why Do You Need To Sleep Train?

Most people go by the notion that a baby will sleep through the night, or even just longer stretches when he or she is developmentally ready, and that is fine if that is what works for you. Dr. Ferber begs to differ, he sees no difference in the fact that we need to teach our children to sleep, just as we do to eat, walk and talk. He has stated that he has seen countless patients at the Children’s hospital that are struggling with sleep issues.

Some people are lucky to be blessed with a baby that sleeps perfectly right from the beginning, others not so much. The big issues Ferber sees with infants is a problem with sleep association. We all wake briefly at night, and then if we don’t notice anything amiss, we go right back to sleep often not even remembering it the next day. This is a survival instinct to ensure we are safe at our most vulnerable time. The same with infants, they wake periodically, and they have a hard time going back to sleep.

13What Is Sleep Association?

A lot of infants, mine included, have a problem with sleep association. This is often cause by the parents, who do not do it intentionally. We nurse or rock our little ones to sleep, because it works and it is an easy method to get them to go to sleep. We just want to do what works and what is easy, because we all need some sleep. There is a large problem with this though. When we nurse or do other methods in getting our little ones to sleep, when they have those moments of brief waking during the night, they will require those same methods to get back to sleep.

Ferber explains it perfectly in his book. Think about this analogy; if we went to bed every night the way we always do, if we were to wake up on the front lawn, we would be a little worried. We may just get up and go back to bed, but if this continues to happen, we may become fearful of going to sleep as we do not want to take up on the front lawn. This is what it is like for babies, they fall asleep on the breast, with the comfort of mom’s warmth and smell, and when we wake up it is dark, quiet, and mom is no where to be seen. This is quite alarming to an infant, and it can become a big problem.

12What Is The Aim Of Breaking Sleep Associations?

There is a very important reason we want to break these sleep associations. When a baby has a problem with a sleep association, when they wake up during the night, they need these conditions to be the same again before they will be able to go back to sleep. My daughter was a breast fed baby, and I nursed her to sleep from day one, a mistake on my part. So, she would wake up every 45 minutes and demand to be on the boob. She was not eating, she was comforting herself and recreating her sleep environment. She would fall asleep within minutes of being back on the breast.

The aim in the “cry it out” is to teach them to self soothe. You want them to learn the ability to fall asleep on their own. The way to do this is to ensure that when they have those brief moments of waking during the night that they are in the same sleep environment as they were when they initially fell asleep. The Ferber method is one of the best ways to accomplish this.

11How To Prepare For This Method

Now that we have covered the basics on why this method is done and the biological reasons for it to be done, we will explore how we do this method. Like Ferber states, the aim is not to let your baby cry, but it is a side effect. This will be hard on mom and dad, so it is important that the parent’s are emotionally prepared for this transition. What I did, was I went and bout Ferber’s book to research and ensure I understood why I was doing this and how to complete it properly. I did not want to set myself up for failure.

The book suggests that when you are preparing to do this method, one of the best things you want to do is to put them to bed a little later than normal. You want to ensure that they are tired. It can be a hard line to walk, because if you push it back too long, they will be overtired which makes it harder for them to fall asleep. His rule of thumb was about half an hour. He also states that if you have other children or neighbours with thin walls you may want to send the older kids to grandma’s for the night, and warn your neighbours. Of course, to make sure your baby is well fed and dry and comfortable.

10Who Should Do This? Mom Or Dad?

He also addresses which parental figure should be the one participating in this method. We all know parents are a team and we are all in this together and we must work together to be successful. Be that the case, there is a very good reason why Dad may need to be the one to get the ball rolling. Ferber states that it should not be the person who is normally up with the baby throughout the night. This is usually mom, so dad’s it may be your turn.

The reason for this actually makes a lot of sense. If it is mom who is getting up with the baby all night, then when she goes in and does not provide the breast or the bottle, this is more likely to get the baby more upset. Of course, there are those dad’s out there who get up at night, so in this case mom would go in. Whatever works for your family is the way to go, I was not as emotionally able as my husband either, so he handled it a lot better than I did.

9So What Is The Method?

The Ferber method is actually quite simple, and this will hopefully clear up any thoughts that we are just leaving our babies to cry and cry. Once you have done all you need to prepare, it is time to get started. When the baby is changed, fed and comfortable, you will simply go in and place your baby to bed. You will say I love you and goodnight and leave the room. Your baby will probably cry, if they don’t then you probably don’t need this method.

Then what you are going to do is you are going to wait. You will go in at timed intervals to reassure your baby that everything is OK. You can find a chart that is suggested by Dr. Ferber to follow in his book and online, but he states that you can set the times as a parental unit, just make sure the time between reassurances is increasing. For example, we waited one minute before we went in and just reassured her that she was ok, and we left. Then we waited 3 minutes and went in again, then 5 minutes and so on. You only want to spend about 30 seconds in the room and you do not want to pick them up. You can place your hand on their belly and talk to them in a soothing tone.

8What If The Baby Throws Up?

This is a concern a lot of parents have, that their baby will get so worked up that they will throw up. Dr. Ferber states very clearly that you should never leave them if they throw up. You will want to go in and clean everything up, but you do not want to talk to your baby. Do everything as calmly, quickly and quietly as you can and then leave the room again.

Babies are very smart, and the problem when you interact with them while cleaning them up is that they will quickly learn that if they throw up, you will come back in the room and pick them up. This is especially true when you are dealing with older infants. They can start making themselves throw up to get mom and dad to come back in the room. Another habit, you do not want to start.

7Where Should You Do It?

There are many different places for an infant to sleep, a crib, bassinet, bed sharing and pack n’ plays. So, many do not know where they should be implementing the Ferber method. The best advice that Dr. Ferber and I can give you is to complete this method in the environment you want your little one in permanently. So, if the goal is for the baby to one day be in his or her crib in their own room, this is where you want to put them to do the Ferber method.

The worst thing in the world for everyone involved would be to do sleep training in one place, and then have to do it again in a couple months when you want them to sleep in a new and unfamiliar environment. When we sleep trained, our baby was in a bassinet in the living room, so we decided we would do the sleep training in her crib in her own room. So, make sure before you do this method that you are comfortable with your baby being in their own room or a different sleep environment than they are now.

6Should You Ever Just Leave Them And Not Go In?

As we discussed, the method for this involves going in at interval times to soothe and calm your little one. Dr. Ferber explains that there may be times you just have to leave them and not go in at the regularly scheduled times. If you notice that when you are going to soothe them that they are not responding well, or are getting more upset, then you may be better to not go in. Or if you notice it is worse when Dad goes in and better with Mom, then have mom continue to go in.

There are instances where you are waiting for the next timed check in, and you sense that they are calming down. So, you have one minute left before you go in and they are still crying, but not anywhere near the same intensity they were, you won’t want to go in now, as this may cause them to start crying harder again. You will just want to reset the timer and see how it goes. Again, communication with your partner on what you are comfortably with will help with these decisions.

5Does It Work?

People want to know that a method is guaranteed to work before they start it, especially if it involves letting their baby cry for any amount of time. The truth is, there is no method that is guaranteed to work. Dr. Ferber has never stated that his method is guaranteed to work, but it has been very successful for families who stick with it.

My success story is one example of how helpful this method can be. My daughter cried the first night for a total of 45 minutes, with us going in at the timed intervals. She would then fall asleep for an hour and woke again, took 7 minutes. She then woke up an hour later, took 7 minutes. Then she slept for 4 hours. For a sleep-deprived mom this was heaven. I was still nursing so at this point I went in and fed her, she then cried for 3 minutes and slept until 8 am! This was very exciting for us. From that night on, she would cry anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes. She was still waking to feed, which I expected, but she went from waking every 45 minutes, to sleeping 7 hour chunks and waking once to feed. Every baby and child is different, and you have to do what you think works, no one knows your baby better than you.

4What If It Doesn’t Work?

There is no one size fits all for anything to do with parenting, what works for one family may not work for another. Also, what works for your first child may not work for your second. Dr. Ferber states that this method is effective, but it doesn’t always work. He also provides alternative methods in his book to try if this method doesn’t work. He also states that it can take up to a week for this method to work, so do not get discouraged if it doesn’t work the first night.

At the end of the day, you know your baby the best and you know how much your baby and you can handle. By no means does Ferber want you to let your baby cry for 5 hours, he doesn’t want your baby to cry at all. The good thing about his book, is it discusses many different scenarios to help your child sleep. He doesn’t just talk about infant sleeping, but he addresses children who are older and have nightmares, and how to transition your baby from a crib to a toddler bed.

3What About Those That Say It Is Harmful?

The big debate around this method is that it is psychologically harmful to your baby and that it will negatively impact their life later on. That they will have trust issues, and will learn that they can not rely on their parents when they need them. The big problem with anything around such situations, is that there is always going to be two sides. Doesn’t matter if it is sleep training, or vaccinating, there will always be information out there that says it does absolutely no harm, and others that say it is very harmful.

We all have to do the research, and decide ourselves what is best for our children. This article is by no means a way of saying everyone should do this method and that it is totally safe. It is merely an article to explain the method, as it has been so wrongly misnamed. As I have stated before, and will continue to, every family has to do what works for them with the information they are provided. All I can say it my “ferberized” baby is a happy and healthy 16 month old who sleeps 13 hours a night.

2Cry It Out VS. Extinction

There has always been a lot of confusion on the definition of letting a baby cry it out. Dr. Ferber’s method has been named the “cry it out” method, when as we stated it is not. When people are referring to the “cry it out” method they are really referring to a form of sleep training known as extinction. The extinction method is literally when you place your baby in their crib awake, and you leave. They will cry, but this method instructs parents to just leave them and never go back in to reassure.

This is the method a lot of parents did 30 years ago, mine included. This is also the real “cry it out’ method, not Dr. Ferber’s. This is one example of how information is crucial when it comes to any concerns regarding our little ones. The more we know, the better we will be able to handle situations. It also helps take away some of the stigma around certain topics. Hopefully, we can all clear up Dr. Ferber’s name, so he will no longer be called the “cry it out” leader.

1What About Naps?

A lot of people think this method will only work for night time sleeping, and feel like the daytime naps are being left out. This is not true, naps are important for the baby’s wellbeing and mom and dad’s sanity, and the method is pretty much the same, but slightly adjusted for nap times.

Dr. Ferber states that a nap is good enough if it is half an hour. So if you put your baby down for a nap, and they only sleep for half an hour then that is good enough, and you should not do the method to get them to sleep longer. He also states that if you do the method, and they spend half an hour crying, do not continue. Get them up and try again at the next scheduled nap time. He also states that if the baby falls asleep for their nap somewhere other than their bed, do not wake them and let them sleep where they are. He states that the main purpose of his method is to get babies to fall asleep on their own, it doesn’t matter where they sleep.

Sources: Ferber R. 2006. Solving Your Child’s Sleep Problems,

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