G force

Getting your kids to sleep

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By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / July 11, 2011

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Dr. Richard Ferber


Ferber, who helped found the field of children’s sleep disorder treatment, is retiring this summer after nearly 40 years at Children’s Hospital Boston.

Q. What do you think of the new book “Go the F**k to Sleep,’’ which has been all over the bestseller lists and late night talk shows?

A. It’s a well done book by a good writer. It obviously [struck] a chord that must be shared by a lot of people even still.

Q. It’s obviously not your fault that people still struggle with getting their kids to sleep.

A. I’ve gone through raising children myself. I know what this is like. I know what is happening when children aren’t sleeping well. I see what happens when families are not getting enough sleep and they’re getting short-tempered and sometimes actually missing the joy of parenthood.

Q. Are most sleep problems triggered by medical issues or just bad habits?

A. The overwhelming majority of sleeplessness problems are not medical; they are triggered by habit and limit-setting and nighttime feeding and schedules.

Q. You are best known for the strategy - commonly called “Ferberizing’’ - of teaching children to fall asleep on their own by letting them cry for increasing intervals if neces-sary.

A. That’s certainly not my term. I guess I’m flattered that it’s in use, but I don’t like what it means. It’s misinterpreted, and the implication is that there’s a one-pattern fits all. If a child’s awake at night, if they’re in pain, there’s no point to leave them crying. Certainly there’s no reason to do that if they’re frightened.

Q. So, what is the right context for “Ferberizing’’?

A. The main time you want to delay your response is when a child is up, but can go to sleep quickly if somebody is doing something, let’s say rocking or rubbing their back. They’re used to that pattern at bedtime.

Q. Why do you think your name became so associated then with a method that you don’t prescribe?

A. I think somebody had used that approach, let’s say appropriately, and had a very quick response, so they were very happy with that. They then passed it on. [But] they didn’t pass on the science behind it, they didn’t pass on all the things you really should be thinking about. That’s not my method, that’s the method that’s passed along. If I have a method, it’s to figure out the problem and design a solution that is appropriate for the child and appropriate for the family.

Q. What do you think about the problem of teenagers who seem to want to sleep late and go to bed late - but have to be at school at 7 a.m.?

A. This is a very major problem. If someone has to get up at 5:30 or 6 for high school and they needed nine hours of sleep, that means they have to go to sleep at 9 or 8:30. The idea of asking all 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds to be asleep at 8:30 or 9 every night is socially out of the question.

Q. What about naps for teenagers? Can they compensate for a short night of sleep?

A. If a siesta is built into a day on a very regular basis, you can learn to have a little less sleep at night and some sleep during the day, but that only seems to work in a society where it is a basic and general part of the culture. Irregularity does not seem to work very well.

Interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at

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