Ferberizing Charlie

7.16.07: Solving our babies' sleep problems?


"By the way, I'm Ferberizing Charlie," I announced to Will, as I shoved a piece of pizza in my mouth and ran around the house looking for my car keys. "He cried for over an hour last night. It was horrible. Can you do it tonight? OK?" I gave Will a peck on the lips and ran out the door not really sure he'd even heard me.

It's the kind of interaction that never would have happened when Julia was a baby. For one thing, Will and I would have discussed something like this ad nauseum, weighing the pros and cons, strategizing, reading books, and talking about our feelings on the matter.

Now...not so much.

Lately we've been doing some major tag-team parenting, practically high-fiving each other as we hand off the kids and take turns taking care of business. With both of them to feed, bathe, and get to bed, and only one pair of hands on deck, we've had to get a little more strict about our bedtime routine.

For anyone not familiar with the "Ferber Method," it's a school of thought where you train the baby to soothe himself to sleep by letting him cry for gradually longer periods of time, while you intermittently check on him, patting and comforting him without picking him up. The theory is that you're giving your child healthy sleep habits for life, since you're teaching him to fall asleep independently.

That's the theory, anyway.

Trying It Out

I've been trying it with Charlie for the past few nights. And it's been awful. Each night, Charlie has cried for over an hour, and I've practically broken down in tears myself. Every time I go into his room to soothe him, he looks up at me so plaintively, so painfully, begging me to pick him up with his frantic eyes. And I don't. Again and again and again. It makes me feel like the absolute worst mother in the world. And, I can't help but feel like Charlie is losing some sort of trust in me.

I've been trying to muscle through it, focusing my mind elsewhere while Charlie cries. I can usually spend the first half hour folding a basket of laundry or doing the dishes, but by the second half hour, I'm curled up in the fetal position on my own bed, trying to talk myself out of running into Charlie's room to pick him up. It's usually just as I'm reaching my breaking point that Charlie does fall asleep, albeit in a sad, whimpering, choked up kind of way that breaks my heart, as I'm pretty sure he's only falling asleep out of sheer exhaustion.

So why am I doing it?

In a word: Julia. At three years old, she is still not a good sleeper, and I am determined to do better with Charlie.

Most nights will find Julia in our bed by the middle of the night. We haven't cracked down on it because, truthfully, we kind of love hearing the pitter patter of her little feet in the night, as she runs into our room clutching her stuffed animals and begging to climb into bed with us. And when I stop to ask myself what we'll care more about in twenty years'—having had our bed to ourselves, or snuggling up with our kids'—I'm pretty sure that we'll both look back on our full bed a bit nostalgically.

But now that Charlie's here, I feel like I've got these two little birdies sitting on my shoulders, whispering conflicting messages in my ears. The little birdy on my left shoulder is telling me that we need to try harder to teach Charlie to sleep on his own, by whatever means will work. The bird on my right shoulder is whispering about how nice it feels to just let go and let our entire family pile into bed like a litter of puppies.

But then, there are my aching shoulders, telling me that sleeping on one-inch of mattress and getting kicked in the kidneys all night is not the best kind of rest for any of us.

A Bit of History

We had tried the Ferber method when Julia was a baby, and it just didn't work for us. For me, I should say. It went against my every instinct to let Julia lie in her crib and cry. I simply couldn't do it. I would end up running into her room and picking her up, then rocking or nursing her until she was almost sleep.

I had read a handful of sleep books, all with different theories on how to put your baby to sleep. But the one that really hit home for me was the Dr. Sears Baby Book, which advocated attachment-style parenting and co-sleeping with the baby. The Dr. Sears book said that said if letting your baby cry it out feels wrong, it probably is. I couldn't help but agree. But, not wholeheartedly. After all, I wanted Julia to be able to fall asleep on her own.

For a while, we decided that Will would fly solo on the Ferber method, since I simply could not do it. Will agreed to be the tough, responsible parent, while I agreed to sit outside on the front steps and hide, leaving Will inside to do the dirty work. And, it did work, after just a couple weeks, as promised. For a while, we were singing Dr. Ferber's praises as Julia went down without a fuss, and Will and I got some much-needed grown-up time in the evenings. But then, a visit with grandparents, or an illness, or a business trip would disrupt our schedules, and we'd find ourselves starting back at square one. Eventually, neither one of us had the heart to do it anymore. The last straw was when Julia vomited once from crying so much. That did it for me. I was done with the Ferber method for good.

Or, so I thought...

Driving Miss Lazy

If I'm being totally honest, I should probably just admit that maybe we've simply been a bit lazy when it comes to our bedtime routines. After a long, busy day, sometimes it's simply easier to climb into bed together, or to nurse a baby to sleep. Sometimes Will and I opt for the path of least resistance out of sheer exhaustion, just so we can get a little break ourselves. Like when we load everyone into the car and go for a "scenic drive" around our neighborhood, which usually puts both of our kids to sleep in a matter of minutes.

Our friends Marc and Margaret happen to live along our scenic route, and I'm constantly craning my neck toward their already-dark house, complaining to Will: "Why are they asleep?! They have a four-month-old!" Will just shrugs and turns the car toward our fourth loop around the neighborhood, as I slump back in my seat, feeling pretty ridiculous.

I decided to ask Margaret for some advice. She told me that she Ferberized her baby, Henry. "I'd just tell myself that I wouldn't let Henry play with matches, and this is no different. I need to teach him how to go to sleep." It took two weeks, and Henry now goes to bed without so much as a whimper.

I listened to Margaret tell me about her experience with a mix of wistful longing and overwhelming relief—because Margaret is a warm, intelligent, responsible parent, whose advice I trust, who had just given me new hope that a good night's sleep could be in our near future. I decided to give the Ferber method another try.

Trying It Out...Again

This time, I haven't been hiding outside on the porch. I've been doing the brunt of the work, mostly out of necessity. The night I left Will at home to go it alone, I thought: "Poor Will. He probably doesn't even remember what he's in for." I expected to arrive home later that night to find him curled up in the fetal position. Instead, he greeted me at the door with a sheepish look on his face.

"What? What's wrong? Who's awake? Is Julia awake? Is Charlie awake?" I asked, as Will just stood there, not really saying anything.

The house was silent. Almost too silent.

Will broke into a huge grin and announced: "They've both been asleep for hours. Charlie fell asleep in ten minutes. I Ferberized him!"

Then, he ducked under my arm as I attempted to take a swing at him, and ran into the other room, laughing, fully aware that he'd gotten off easy that night.

The Long and Winding Road

I married a man with a good appreciation for irony. It's been a long road in the sleep department with Julia. And, I don't expect it to be easy with Charlie, either. I know from experience that we'll have stops and starts—we'll take one step forward and two steps back. We'll be diligent most of the time, but there will be nights when we'll take the easy way out, out of sheer exhaustion.

For now, we are trying our best to stick with it. For the past few nights, Charlie has slept eleven hours straight, waking up in his crib in the morning, smiling and happy. And it's then when I think: maybe I can do this (and is it too late to Ferberize Julia?!).

Maybe we'll end up with one independent sleeper. Maybe we'll end up in some sort of middle ground that works for our family.

Or, maybe we'll just end up buying a bigger bed.

Join FitPregnancy.com's Managing Editor Dana Rousmaniere each week as she chronicles life with a new baby.

Read the next entry: 7.23.07: Working Girl