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How to Become a Verb

Photo by Mattias PaludiI never set out to be a verb—and certainly never hoped to be one. I’m not sure when the term ferberize crept into the country’s lexicon. It seems to refer to a method for helping children learn to fall asleep under the same unchanging conditions they’ll encounter through most of the night—just one of many techniques we use in the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital Boston. This oversimplification has forced me to learn several lessons about becoming a verb, some of them cautionary.

Apply early.

When we began our work in 1978, no other centers were tackling children’s sleep problems comprehensively. Myths, knee-jerk recommendations, and inappropriate prescriptions prevailed. Today, clinicians and researchers worldwide focus on children’s sleep, and physicians are better able to understand normal sleep patterns, recognize the sources of problems, and design rational strategies for solving those problems.

Be willing to be misunderstood.

A downside to becoming a generonym—a proper noun used generically, such as Band-Aid, Kleenex, and Xerox—is that you have no control over the usage. The verb ferberize—and its noun companions, such as “the Ferber method”—inaccurately distills decades of our work into a single, simplistic concept. Ferberizing seems to imply that sleep problems carry a one-size-fits-all solution: forcing babies to cry themselves to sleep, a technique we oppose.

Roll with the punchlines.

Movies and television programs occasionally spoof the term ferberize. I’ve learned to ignore the references and even join in the laughter.

Have a surname that’s easily converted.

Two-syllable names ending in “er” are best, as they easily accommodate the addition of “ize” or “ism.” For all those Millers, Parkers, and Fliers—there’s hope for you yet.

Richard Ferber ’70, an HMS associate professor of neurology at Children’s Hospital Boston, is the author of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems: New, Revised, and Expanded Edition (Fireside, 2006).

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