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Dr. Ferber Revisits His 'Crying Baby' Theory


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, the highest grossing movie over Memorial Day weekend is based on a comic book series and holds a social message.

BRAND: But first...

(Soundbite of baby crying)

BRAND: It's the sound that makes new parents wince - a baby who just won't go to sleep. So what do you do?

(Soundbite of baby crying)

BRAND: Pediatrician Richard Ferber is known for some controversial advice that some crying might be good for babies when they're learning how to fall asleep on their own. He also said that babies shouldn't sleep with their parents. But now, Dr. Richard Ferber may be changing his views. From member station WBUR, Allan Coukell reports.

ALLAN COUKELL, reporting:

For two decades Richard Ferber's name has been attached to the idea that any and every child can quickly learn to sleep through the night if parents just leave them to cry alone for a few nights. Many parents swear by this so-called Ferberizing. Others consider it just short of barbaric. Ferber says they've read him wrong.

Dr. RICHARD FERBER (Author; Director, Center for Pediatric Sleep, Boston Children's Hospital): The concept that some people are implying that I have this approach that I use for children who are not sleeping well is a complete misunderstanding.

COUKELL: This week, Ferber updates his 1985 book Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. He's adamant that he's never been rigid in his beliefs, and his gentle demeanor seems to bear him out. He's a slight, soft-spoken man with wire-rimmed glasses and a closely trimmed gray beard. In his clinic, he regularly counsels parents.

Dr. FERBER: So what would you say your goal is at his point?

GABRIEL(ph): Mommy, I want a kiss.

BETH(ph): You want a kiss?

COUKELL: With him are Beth and her two-year-old son Gabriel, who can't seem to fall asleep without one of his parents lying beside him.

BETH: My goal? I really want to find a solution to the whole having to lie down with him on the futon.

Dr. FERBER: If you're going to end up on the futon with him, you might as well just go there from the beginning.

BETH: Mm-hmm.

Dr. FERBER: If we really want to make a major, major effort at getting away from that, then Gabriel needs to have experience doing that. Not just once in awhile. The way is if he does it night after night after night, he starts to forget about the old way and remembers the new way.

COUKELL: Ferber's consultations mix sleep science with psychology. On this, he says his views have not changed. His goal is to help parents find their own solution. The so-called Ferber method, the approach of allowing a child to cry for longer and longer periods, he reserves only for those families who want to break what Ferber calls bad sleep habits.

Dr. FERBER: A typical example of that is a child who is rocked to sleep, the family is sneaking them into the crib and then tip-toeing out of the room. So when they wake up at night, lo and behold everything has been changed. Now that child is not going to be very happy with that. If the family wants the youngster sleeping in the crib by themselves then they have to be honest with their youngster. And you put the child into the crib awake.

Dr. BOB SEARS (Pediatrician; Author, The Baby Sleep Book): What I see is the baby's pretty much shot down.

COUKELL: That's pediatrician Bob Sears, co-author with his father William Sears of another new book, The Baby Sleep Book. The Sears are opposed to letting children cry themselves to sleep, which Bob Sears says can cause neurological and psychological damage.

Dr. SEARS: They don't laugh as spontaneously. They don't coo and babble, you know, as often. They kind of turn into pretty quiet babies. And we call it the shut down syndrome.

COUKELL: Sears admits he only sees this in babies who've been crying for long periods, week after week, something Richard Ferber doesn't advocate. Ferber says his experience with thousands of patients convinces him that the best way to a happy baby is to make sure everyone, including parents, gets a good night's sleep.

But there is an area where both Sears and Ferber have changed their views. Twenty years ago the Sears were strong advocates of co-sleeping, the practice of parents and children sharing a bed. Now, Sears acknowledges that this doesn't work for everybody. Ferber once said that parents who want to co-sleep should, quote, "examine their own motivations." In his new book, he now says co-sleeping works just fine for many families.

Dr. FERBER: Children are very flexible. They can sleep well in many different settings and do terrifically.

COUKELL: As for the verb Ferberize, the doctor says he's just as soon it went to sleep. For NPR News, I'm Allan Coukell in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allan Coukell