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In this exclusive interview with Babytalk, Dr. Richard Ferber clears up rumors about the controversial sleep training technique his name is synonymous with.
Millions of parents swear he helped get their children to sleep through the night, but Richard Ferber, M.D., isn't sure whether or not to be proud. He's dedicated his life to studying sleep and helping parents survive night wakings, early wake-ups, and nap anarchy (he directs the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital Boston), but he's not so happy that his name has become synonymous with leaving babies alone to "cry it out." A few years ago, he published a major overhaul of his best-selling book, Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems, to help correct that misconception, but the label still sticks. In an exclusive interview with Babytalk senior editor Patty Onderko, the sleep guru chatted about his ongoing work at the center and the legacy he hopes to leave.
(Related: Which sleep method is right for you? Take our baby sleep quiz to find out)
Babytalk: How do you feel about the fact that parents describe their children as "Ferberized"?
Richard Ferber, M.D.: It's flattering that my name is out there, but it suggests a misunderstanding of what I've been teaching for so long that it concerns me. I've always believed that there are many solutions to sleep problems, and that every family and every child is unique. People want one easy solution, but there's no such thing. I never encouraged parents to let their babies cry it out, but one of the many treatment styles I described in my book is gradual extinction, where you delay your response time to your baby's wakings. I went to great pains in the second edition to clarify that that treatment is not appropriate for every sleep issue, of which there are many. So if someone tells me they tried my "method," I know they only read one small part of my book. (Related: The 6 biggest parenting myths that the Bad Parent Fairy keeps spreading)
BT: But you do believe that self-soothing is an important part of an infant's sleep health, correct?
RF: Yes. One of the most common problems I see is night waking. There's a huge misunderstanding that children should sleep through the night without any waking. All humans wake up a number of times at night to check that all is well, to reposition themselves, and then return to sleep. When babies experience these normal partial arousals, they may whine or fuss, and parents think it's their responsibility to "help" their child go back to sleep. But when you become a part of the process -- by rubbing your baby's back or rocking her -- she might not be able to fall back asleep on her own. (Related: "I bribe my baby... (And it's OK!)" : Why you deserve a permission slip, too)
BT: That sounds like you're suggesting letting them cry, though.
RF: Gradual extinction is one way to deal with night waking, if the baby expects a certain intervention such as rocking or back rubbing, but it's not always that simple. There are other reasons babies wake up at night, too: They may be getting too much sleep during the day, they may have gastrointestinal distress, or the child might be anxious. But when your child knows how to self-soothe, you know that when he wakes up crying at night there is probably another reason worth investigating. We have to look at the whole pattern of day and night sleep habits to create a plan that will work.
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