Extinction Bursts

If you’re planning on addressing your little one’s sleep issues, I want to prepare you for something.

It’s possible that things are going to get worse before they get better.

For some babies, that might mean a night or two of more intense crying at bedtime, and for some it might mean more like four or five.

That probably doesn’t come as a big surprise. If you have a child that doesn’t sleep well, you’ve probably already established an elaborate routine to respond to your baby’s bedtime. It’s usually a combination of feeding, bouncing, getting them settled in your arms, popping in a dummy, and getting them into their crib at the exact right moment.

Why? Because if you try to do it any other way, your baby’s going to cry. And if you don’t give in, they’re going to cry even louder and harder. It’s a common response to behaviour modification known as an extinction burst.

An extinction burst occurs when a behaviour that has been previously reinforced suddenly stops being reinforced. In other words, when a baby is used to receiving a certain response or reward for a particular behaviour, and that response or reward is suddenly removed, the baby will increase the intensity and frequency of that behaviour in an attempt to get what they want. In this case, the rocking, shushing, or nursing to sleep that they’re accustomed to.

Extinction bursts can occur in a variety of situations, from sleep training to 

weaning from breastfeeding. They can be particularly challenging for parents to navigate, as it can be difficult to tell if the baby is seeking attention or if they’re genuinely upset. 

However, it’s important to understand that extinction bursts are a normal part of a baby’s development and are not a sign that something’s wrong.

So, how can parents cope with these bedtime extinction bursts?

One word. Consistency.

If you have decided that a particular behaviour is no longer acceptable or that a particular reward will no longer be given, it’s crucial to stick to that decision and not give in to the baby’s increased efforts to elicit the desired response.

This isn’t going to be easy, I know. The increased intensity of baby’s crying is going to be stressful and occasionally overwhelming, but it is important to remain calm and consistent. Get your partner involved or call in the support team, whether it’s your parents, your in-laws, your friends, or a professional sleep consultant, so that you can take a break when things get to be too much for you.

As tough as things may get, don’t forget this one important fact. Extinction bursts are temporary. Good sleep habits are not. Once you’ve come out the other side of this experience, you can look forward to years of your little one sleeping soundly through the night.

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