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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. Then you might get thrown for a loop one more time in the process.


For most babies, changing their sleep habits is going to mean a night or two of more intense crying at bedtime, and for some, it might mean more like four or five nights.


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 pacifier, 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.


But, it DOES stop. I promise! They ALL fall asleep. And, families who work with me in this process will be given a “map” to keep them on track and virtual handholding for 3 entire weeks through the process...to set you (and your child) up for success, tell you what to expect, and coach you on how to respond and support your child while they’re learning the new skill of independent sleep.


Then what happens more often than not is baby starts to build the skill, becomes less confused and more confident and comfortable with the new habits and expectations around sleep, and the protests and crying lessens or stops.


But, wait! Then all of a sudden, there’s a hard night with more crying, again! This phenomenon is not just me, or just sleep training. It’s a common response to behavior modification known as an extinction burst.


An extinction burst occurs when a behavior 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 behavior, and that response or reward is suddenly removed, the baby will increase the intensity and frequency of that behavior in an attempt to get what they want. In this case, the rocking, shushing, or nursing to sleep that they’re accustomed to. But, this *typically* occurs after some initial learning takes place, parents see some sweet improvement, then baby is going to try one more time to try and sway you.


Extinction bursts can occur in a variety of situations, from sleep training to weaning from breastfeeding to (with my personal experience) feeding therapy for picky eating. They can be particularly challenging for parents to navigate, as it can be difficult to tell if the baby/child 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 this bedtime extinction bursts?


One word. Consistency.


If you have decided that a particular behavior 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.


If having some extra support through this process sounds like your jam, then I invite you to schedule a complimentary Sleep Evaluation Call at bit.ly/sleep-evaluation so we can dig into what’s going on with your little one’s sleep habits and share with you how I can help. It’s 20-30 minutes on Zoom, FREE, and no pressure or obligation to book a service with me.

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