Don’t run off on me! I know the term “extinction bursts” seems really clinical and cold, but don’t worry. We’re going to go over exactly what this term means, why it can derail even the best sleep training, and how you (the sleep-deprived parent) can deal.
Extinction Bursts: What They Are
The concept of extinction bursts isn’t just related to sleep training. It’s actually a psychological concept that extends to all kinds of behaviors. To understand this concept, we first have to define a few terms:
- A reinforcement is something that reinforces, or encourages, a particular behavior. This can be a reward for good behavior (think offering a sticker for good table manners) or parental attention for bad behavior. (Think mom or dad paying attention to a toddler when he throws a tantrum. OR, for a more “sleep-focused” example, think mom or dad racing into the nursery and picking up baby every time she stirs during the night.)
- Extinction is removing the reinforcement for a behavior that you want to stop. (Think ignoring your toddler when he throws his tantrum or not picking up your baby and rocking her when she wakes, but instead patting her back while she lies in the crib.) Side note: this is why cry it out sleep coaching is often called extinction. You stop reinforcing your child’s nighttime waking by not coming into the room and offering comfort, and instead, you allow your child to fuss until she falls asleep.
- Extinction bursts are something that happen when you, the parent, stop reinforcing a behavior. Your child starts to realize that his behavior (whether it’s throwing a tantrum or crying at night) is no longer getting the response from you that it once did. So your child thinks, “Hmmm….maybe, in order to get mom’s/dad’s attention again, I just need to do this behavior longer and louder. Maybe that will get their attention and give me that response that I’m used to.” So, the behavior – the tantrum or the night waking, in our examples – suddenly gets way worse. This is the “burst” in “extinction burst.” There’s a sudden and unexpected burst of the behavior you’re trying to get rid of.
Extinction Bursts and Your Baby or Toddler’s Sleep Training
Now that you have a feel for exactly what extinction bursts are, it’s probably pretty easy to see how they impact sleep training, right? Often, parents who sleep train see extinction bursts happen like this*:
You begin sleep training. Your baby resists at first, but you hold firm and stay consistent.
Days 3-4 (or 5 or 6):
Eureka! You start to see progress! It may be small progress, but it’s noticeable. This leaves you feeling confident about your plan and eagerly awaiting those sleep-filled nights you are sure are right around the corner!
Day 5 (or 6 or 7):
Out of the blue, your baby suddenly starts waking often at night and/or resisting bedtime and/or resisting naps. The crying is so loud and long, and you are left wondering what on earth happened. You were making such good progress. Why is your baby suddenly fighting sleep and resisting even your best and most consistent sleep coaching efforts?!
*Note: This pace is generally right for parents who are using check and console methods. Parents using cry it out may see this timeline happen faster. Parents using gentle methods may need to extend this timeline to have an accurate picture.
As you can imagine, extinction bursts are always confusing and discouraging for parents. How can your baby go from making noticeable progress to waking and wailing more often? This is usually the point when parents think to themselves, “This isn’t working.”
However, far from being a sign that your sleep coaching isn’t working, an extinction burst like this is actually a sign that you are on the right track! From a developmental point of view, extinction bursts are very normal. Your child is responding the way he or she should to the fact that you are no longer doing what you are “supposed” to be doing during wakings.
So take heart. Even though extinction bursts may feel tough to cope with, they are usually signs that you are getting closer to rested nights and peaceful naps!