You may recall the episode of Modern Family in which Mitchell decides to "Ferberize" his daughter, Lily, much to his partner Cameron's chagrin. The term refers to the Ferber Method, a sleep-training strategy developed by Richard Ferber, a pediatrician and the director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital Boston.
In 1985, Ferber wrote the best-selling book Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems (which he later updated in 2006), that detailed his method of allowing babies to cry for a certain period of time before comforting them. The strategy, known as the Ferber Method (also called "graduated extinction"), was designed to help babies learn to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own—or fall back to sleep independently if they wake up in the middle of the night.
"The Ferber Method is a specific method of extinction-sleep training," says Craig Canapari, M.D., director of the sleep medicine program at the Yale School of Medicine and the author of the forthcoming book, Never Too Late to Sleep Train.
Extinction-sleep training, informally called the cry-it-out method, is, says Canapari, essentially ignoring your child—even if they cry—until they go to sleep. "It was kind of the default mode in the late 19th and early 20th century, where the whole thing was you really shouldn't spoil your child."
The Ferber Method differs in that it involves checking in on your child at gradually increasing time intervals.
Comforting could be patting her back or talking to her in a soothing voice. It should not involve picking her up, feeding her, or turning on the light. This reassurance should last only a minute or two.
Leave the room again, and extend the time period (Ferber suggests five minutes) in which you allow your child to cry. Ferber refers to this technique as "progressive waiting." If necessary, come in again and briefly comfort her, and then leave while she is still awake, repeating this process, but extending the wait time to 10 minutes, until she falls asleep without you being in the room. If your child wakes up in the middle of the night, repeat this process to help her go back to sleep.
On the second day, allow your baby to cry for five minutes initially, then 10 minutes, and then 12 minutes. On the third day, begin at 10 minutes, then 12 minutes, and then 15 minutes. The idea is that after a few days of slowly increasing that waiting time, most babies will eventually learn to fall asleep on their own, knowing that mom or dad is not going to pick them up when they cry.
According to Canapari, the window for beginning any type of sleep-training method is between four to six months old. "You can do it up to age 2, but the older your child is, the harder it's going to be," he says.
He says for most methods of extinction-sleep training, including the Ferber Method, it's that second or third night of training when babies cry the most, and it can be the toughest on parents. It's referred to as an extinction burst, and it's often the time when many parents give up on the method.
"When you see that extinction burst," says Canapari, "that's when you're on the cusp of improvement. I would usually say to people that, generally, the crying is going to be on the downslope, and will get better three to four days after the intervention."
But for some parents, like Cameron in Modern Family, allowing their baby to cry, even for a few seconds, feels cruel. "There is evidence from an evolutionary standpoint that we are wired to respond to children's cries," says Canapari. "This is a very deep drive, and it kind of goes against our natural inclination to ignore this."
As often is the case in most child-rearing ventures, the key to making the Ferber Method work is consistency. The process should take a few days or a week, not weeks and weeks, says Canapari. If it is dragging out, make sure your partner is on the same page as you. Picking up the baby and rocking her when she cries at night can drag out the process.
"A lot of parents feel stress or guilt about any sort of behavior modification," says Canapari, "but I say you owe it to yourself and your child to have healthy sleep habits."