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Baby Sleep Coach: Cry-It-Out Method Is Misunderstood and Misused
  • I was delighted when I was asked by my editor to write about the Ferber method (or the cry-it-out practice) as a sleep training tool. It's a much debated-upon subject because there are many opposing opinions, and most of it unclear.

    As a sleep coach, I think the cry-it-out (CIO) method is a highly misunderstood technique when it comes to teaching your baby to sleep. It's often misused (I am tempted to say almost 100 percent of the time) by parents including those who have done their research. Now, my intention here is not to make you feel guilty. I am not here to judge your parenting, only to share some research and my experiences with those of you who are ‘thinking’ about sleep training your baby. As long as you fully understand something and have chosen to proceed with it, embrace that decision to empower you.

    Dr. Spock on teaching baby to sleep
    First, let me talk a little about sleep training. Training a baby to sleep is a relatively new concept to most Filipino families (it is popular in the U.S. and the U.K). It had first gained popularity in 1946 when Dr. Benjamin Spock became a respected household name in the U.S. (and the world) with his Baby and Child Care Handbook, which continues to be a go-to family book and a gift my mother gave me when my son was born. 

    In the book's original edition, Dr. Spock wrote: “Keep bedtime agreeable and happy. Remember that it is delicious and inviting to the tired child, if you don’t turn it into an unpleasant duty. Have an air of cheerful certainty about it.” The book focuses on how to make your baby’s day calm, stress-free and connecting through love. 

    In the newer edition, the book has tips on how to lay good sleep foundations during the 3rd and 4th month of the baby. The tips were about allowing a baby to practice falling asleep on his own, but it doesn't offer guidance on what to do if the baby doesn’t manage. The original edition was said to have instructions on how to put your child to bed that included closing the door that seemed to imply to let the baby cry itself to sleep, but not much else was suggested.

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    Clarifying the cry-it-out method
    Some 40 years later, Dr. Richard Ferber's book entitled Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems was published, and it made the loudest noise (no pun intended!) when it came to the art of baby sleep. The method in the book — placing the baby in a room, leaving them to cry for "extended periods of time" so they can learn how to self-soothe — gave way to a lot of (mis) interpretations. 

    As Baby Center clarifies, Dr. Ferber doesn't say shut the door and leave. "You gradually limit the time you spend in your child's room while providing regular comfort and reassurance – as well as reassuring yourself that she's okay." 

    In his book’s second edition, Dr. Ferber also tried to clarify that the CIO method is not suitable for every sleep difficulty parents may experience. And if there is an emotional disconnect between child and parent (such as the all too common and developmentally appropriate separation anxiety), then the CIO method is not "the best idea."

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    The French approach to sleep training
    I am particularly familiar with how the French approach sleep. My husband is from Paris, and I had a firsthand experience when it came to the French extended family's expectations of a wife and a mother. The way French families approach their baby’s sleep is it is never about "training." The direct translation of a baby sleeping through the night in French does not even mention the act of sleep. It translates to “doing their nights.” It is assumed that the baby has a job to do to sleep through the night — it does not come from the parent. 

    French parents absolutely do not let their babies cry it out, like the Ferber method suggests. They use their ears, while the Ferber method uses a clock irrespective of the sounds a baby makes. 

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    As American journalist Pamela Druckerman described it in her book Bringing Up Bebe, French mothers don't immediately go to their babies when they wake up and make a noise (or cry). They wait for a few minutes to give their babies a chance to settle down on his own. If a baby doesn't end up soothing himself on his own after two to five minutes, that's when his French mama picks him up. 

    Druckerman writes: "One reason for pausing is that young babies make a lot of movements while they’re sleeping. This is normal and fine. If parents rush in and pick the baby up every time he makes a peep, they’ll sometimes wake him up. Another reason for pausing is that babies wake up between their sleep cycles, which last about two hours. It’s normal for them to cry a bit when they’re first learning to connect those cycles. If a parent automatically interprets this cry as demand for food or a sign of distress and rushes in to soothe the baby, the baby will have a hard time learning to connect the cycles on his own. That is, he’ll need an adult to come in and soothe him back to sleep at the end of each cycle."

    This technique is why French babies are known to sleep through the night at 2 to 4 months. 

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    Babies are very good at sleeping
    As you can see, the French technique of leaving their baby on their own does NOT mean leaving the baby to cry at the top of her lungs for an extended period. How can you ignore or not respond to a baby crying for 20 minutes or even an entire night, which is how most people interpret the CIO method.

    The little research that does exist is clear that CIO is not appropriate for the majority of a child’s sleep difficulties. My approach leads to sleep as the outcome, not the goal. I do not support those who suggest the CIO method. But because it is the most marketed technique (most certification courses are based on it), it can be challenging to find someone who can help with a different methodology. I stand by the research (and my own holistic approach) that CIO is not recommended to teach a child how to sleep. 


    I always share in my seminars with parents and those who come to me for help that in fact, babies know how to sleep and are very good at it. Sleep training done right is all about accompanying your little human on their journey, learning to respect that their journey is different from yours, and their sleep needs are also very different from yours. It's a perspective that takes getting used to, and it's why you need to prepare yourself emotionally and physically when you go through sleep training.

    I have never let my son cry in distress, but I did let him express himself. It was not about him ‘crying’ — it was about me always being WITH him when he was in a whirlwind of emotions that his brain could not shut off without my presence. If he needed my help, I was there with him, but I always stayed back just enough, observing, to allow him the space to figure it out on his own to DO his job.

    Sleep coach Gabrielle trained with two UK based sleep trainers using various methods prior to gaining her certification in London. She specialises in the most up-to-date, respectful parenting strategies, 360-degree understanding of the factors affecting pediatric sleep, and how to help families with more complex cases. Coach Gabrielle is also a certified Baby Listening™ Instructor for newborns with the Baby Language Institute Sydney Australia You may reach her at www.babesofbliss.org and Instagram @babysleepbliss

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