This program was proposed by Dr. Richard Ferber in his 1985 book Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. Recently updated and expanded, it's intended for babies six months or older — not newborns. Dubbed “Ferberizing” by moms, the goal is for the baby to learn to put herself to sleep alone in a crib, and then to put herself back to sleep without a fuss when she wakes up during the night. This is meant to be a positive experience that gradually teaches the child to fall back on her own resources for comfort.
Ferber likens the process to what an adult would have to go through should she be forbidden to sleep with a pillow. At first she'd have trouble falling asleep and would wake repeatedly, but, after a few nights, she'd get used to it and sleep just fine.
Ferber's system, like many others, starts with a bedtime ritual (a bath perhaps, followed by a book or a song). You or your partner then put your baby to bed while she is still awake. The parent leaves the room, and the baby cries. On the first night, the parent returns in five, then ten, then fifteen minutes, and at subsequent fifteen-minute intervals to reassure the baby that she has not been abandoned. The parent does not stay in the room, rock the baby, or give her any “crutches” (like a bottle or a pacifier). Instead, you let the baby hear your voice, you rub her, and stay only two or three minutes each time you go in to offer comfort. No matter what, the parent does not take the baby out of the crib. This is repeated every time the baby wakes during the night. Starting on the second night, each interval is extended by five minutes.
While Ferber offers gradual alternatives (sitting next to the crib in a chair, for example, and moving the chair farther away every night), the approach of leaving for timed intervals is the one he most recommends.
Ferberizing may go on for hours a night, for days, or even weeks and eventually works. The big question is whether or not you are able to make it to the “eventually.” (In most cases dads have an easier time sticking to this program; the hormones released in nursing mothers when listening to a screaming baby for an extended period of time do not make things any easier.)
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development recommend that infants under twelve months be put to sleep in a crib with no soft bedding of any kind under or on top of the baby. They recommend using a sleeper or other sleep clothing as an alternative to blankets with no other covering.
Since Ferber's book came out, a number of similar but slightly modified plans have been published. Maybe the best news is that recent research has shown that you may not need to repeat the Ferber process each time the baby wakes up during the night. Do it once at the beginning of the night, and then go ahead and rock her to sleep when she wakes up. In most cases this won't delay the baby from consistently sleeping through the night.