12 July 2011


My husband loves a healthy dose of controversy. In fact he seeks it out, something that will probably come in useful when he starts law school in the fall. Did I mention he’s going to be a lawyer? Apparently a terminal degree is not what it once was, or at least not when your employer offers to pay for your next terminal degree. As much as he likes to argue, he wasn’t going to argue with that.

What he likes even better than arguing, though, is watching other people do it…on the internet…in the way that people do when they are protected in a cloak of anonymity – specifically by making horrid, cruel and hurtful statement about someone who writes something they disagree with. Seriously, I think this is his favorite thing to do.

So he recently forwarded me this link to a pediatrician’s amusing take on “crying it out” or Ferberizing infants as well as the wounded response of the author after receiving a viscious internet-style lashing from parents who feel very strongly that it is important to practice “kindness” to your children, but not apparently to strangers with different viewpoints.

Now just to be clear, I don’t actually know Richard Ferber, but I did totally walk by him once in the hospital. And, if we’re keeping score, I had a meeting next door to T. Berry Brazelton’s office this one time and also shook hands with Buzz Aldrin. But that’s all I got.

So, sleep. Parents wish that children would do it and children are not always easy to comply. Books have been written on the subject, many books, some scholarly works of great integrity and others not so much Where to go from here? Obviously what works for one family will not work for all. Recognizing this is the first step toward happiness and a compassionate understanding that those who sleep train are not heartless uncaring parents and those who co-sleep and breastfeed on demand until age two are not hapless suckers doomed forever to bend to their child’s every wish. In fact, most of us live somewhere in between.

 Did we sleep train Emmaline? Yes. Did we do it at 2 months as Dr. Gonzalez’s post suggests is acceptable? No. She was still happily entrenched in the co-sleeping nurse every hour on the hour period of babydom at that point. Aren’t there risks to co-sleeping you ask? Yes. But that’s another topic entirely and remember what works for some doesn’t work for all and I’m telling you as my daughter’s mother and the person who tried to get her to sleep in the bassinet by the bed (which we spent good money on I’ll have you know) that it WAS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. So yes, I think two months old it too soon.

At her four month visit her pediatrician asked if Em was sleeping through the night. The advice we had been given at her six-week visit was that until four months of age babies really need to suck to be happy and our job was to keep her happy. She didn’t like a pacifier so I let her suck on me. I kept her happy. So of course she was still feeding frequently overnight at four months. We were only doing what we had been told. And our pediatrician billed the visit as a well child check but also as a “sleep disorder”. This made me more than a little mad since the only disorder my child had was BEING FOUR MONTHS OLD and that was so entirely not her fault.

Before I found out about the billing code and totally unrelated to it, we Ferberized our sweet angel. Here’s how it went. She moved into a big girl crib and the cats moved back into our bed. On night one she cried for five minutes and the egg timer went off. Daryl went in and cuddled her. She cried for five more minutes and I went in. She cried for three minutes and fell asleep. On night two she cried for seven minutes and Daryl went in and then she cried for four more minutes and fell asleep. On night three she cried for three minutes and slept for eight hours.

That’s how it’s worked ever since, except every once in a while when she cries louder or for longer (five minutes!) than we can stand. Then we go into her room to comfort her and for the next few nights she cries harder than before. She’s smart. She thinks she can sleep train us and not the other way around. But she’s also only twenty-two months old, so she’s not the one in charge. When we find ourselves occasionally in the misguided delusion that sleeping in the same bed with her would be a precious and restful thing, Emmaline spends hours awake pulling the tiny hairs of our eyebrows and intermittently bursting into maniacal mad-scientists laughter. She just can't sleep when we're around because our very presence reminds her that she really likes attention. Little diva. 

Now clearly sleep training doesn’t work this easily for every child, but what gives it the best chance at success is consistency. Call it what you will but wimping out or giving in doesn’t teach your child anything but that they can get what they want if they cry long and loud enough. Which brings us to a friend of mine from college I recently had a chance to catch up with by phone who also happens to be a pediatrician. Her son, eighteen months old, still wakes up frequently overnight. She’s tired and frustrated, which means something has to change. Think she should go with the flow and embrace his natural rhythms? Imagine she's your child's doctor and she hasn't slept in more than a year and a half. Seriously, think about it, because she might be your child's doctor. You'd be lucky since she's so great, but you'd be even luckier if she was well rested. 

I can't possibly know what would have happened if she and her husband had tried to sleep train their son at four months old or at ten or twelve. But I do know that it’s only going to be harder now that they’ve tried a couple of different times and then gotten derailed. And I also know that in his eighteen months of life he has cried more overnight than Emmaline did in her three days of sleep training. So no, I don’t feel cruel. I feel lucky, very lucky to be sleeping through the night myself.


  1. Good posting, Dr.! I guess we were just lucky with our daughter...co-sleeping and nursing 'til 24 months was our solution to everyone's having a good night's sleep.

  2. Well done you!! I'm more than a little jealous in fact. If only Em was willing to be unconscious in the presence of others, we might have gone that route.

  3. I appreciate your level-headed approach and views on the concept. Every family is different and what is "right" for the family varies as well. Very nice post.

  4. Love this article re: car seats.