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Mythbusting: Ferber Hasn’t Recanted Controlled Crying

Background: I actually used a spin on Ferber’s method when our kid was waking up every 90 minutes all night and we were going to die if we didn’t get some sleep. I read his book and adjusted it to what I was comfortable with (max 10 minutes of crying, and soothing her after each interval however I wanted, just so long as it didn’t actually put her to sleep in my arms; also I didn’t completely night wean – just cut it down to 1-2 times a night). I don’t think deliberately letting a baby cry, even when they’re older, is an ideal option, nor the first approach you should try if possible. But I also don’t think any kind of sleep training is automatically the fruuwits of the deveel like so many crunchies do.

And some terminology: Ferber endorses “controlled crying,” letting a baby cry for increasing intervals before comforting them, to help children sleep.  This is one of many approaches to “sleep training,” or trying to get babies to sleep for longer periods without parental help.  Any sleep training method that allows the baby to cry may be called “cry it out” or “CIO,” especially by sleep training opponents.

So anyway, I bought Ferber’s book in 2008, and he had a foreword stating that he’d reconsidered his stance on co-sleeping. In his original book he was 100% against it. In the new book he says he looked at new research and changed his mind, so he altered the book to include information on co-sleeping.  While there may be some minor changes such as noting that controlled crying might not work for some children, the rest of the book is still about sleep training and how to do controlled crying.

The newest edition of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (La Leche League’s main publication) was published in 2010.  It has a chapter on sleep, and on page 240, the authors argue against any kind of sleep training, claiming,

At least one well-known proponent of sleep training, Dr. Richard Ferber, has publicly altered his position on “crying it out” at night in light of more recent research.

No quote or citation is provided.

At a recent breastfeeding conference, several people brought up in a session that “even Ferber has changed his mind about CIO!” I asked if they meant the co-sleeping thing, and they said no, it was about not being in favor of sleep training anymore, and when I asked for a citation, I was told to Google it and it’s easy to find. That’s kind of true – lots of result headlines like “Ferber changes mind!” but when you read them, it’s only in reference to the co-sleeping issue, and it’s all referencing the new edition of his book, the entire purpose of which is to endorse and facilitate sleep training.

I don’t really mind if someone challenges one of my parenting choices, especially if they bring up new evidence that shows what I did was a bad choice (like putting my first baby in a separate room and using a sleep positioner!). But it totally irks me when people use false information to browbeat people into agreement. Folks who quote this Ferber meme only investigate far enough to support their own preconceptions, and ignore the actual evidence. It makes them look desperate and weak. It’s particularly questionable when such rumors are repeated in a prominent book which quotes a lot of research and includes citations.  Were the authors merely negligent, or is this a purposeful attempt to mislead?  Either way it’s a shame, because the book contains a lot of useful information that is actually true.

At its core, skepticism is about holding all conclusions provisionally, and being open to changing your beliefs if there is sufficient evidence refuting them.  It’s easy to believe claims that dovetail with your personal inclinations.  That’s why it’s even more important to investigate these claims before passing them along as gospel.  Anyone can seek out confirming factoids, and even cherry-pick scientific research to support preconceived notions.  The real test is looking at the strongest evidence against your pet theory, and taking it seriously.  If your stance survives that, it’s robust and reliable.  Then it’s time to pass it along to others.  If you have to use obfuscation, avoidance, and misdirection to prop up your position, it’s time to reconsider it!