The Extinction Burst Explained

Recently I have been working with families who have experienced the dreaded… Extinction Burst (cue music from a movie where the villain is finally seen). Have no fear. I am here to explain what extinction bursts are, why they happen, and what we can do to survive them. 

From a psychological stand point, an extinction burst is a reaction to a stimulus that was once producing positive reinforcement but now is non-existent.  The behavior or “burst” is exaggerated to try and bring whatever has gone “extinct” back.  Did I completely confuse you yet?  To relate this concept into sleep training terms, an extinction burst would look like this – Mom or Dad usually rocks and bottle feeds their baby until he is completely asleep and then places him in his crib. Baby wakes up in the middle of the night and requires those same actions or sleep props, to be able to return back to sleep. Mom and Dad have decided that this no longer works for their family and they want their baby to learn to self soothe so they discontinue rocking and feeding their baby to sleep and place him in his crib awake in order to learn to fall asleep on his own. Baby starts to realize that things have changed and probably shows his resistance by fussing, crying, or being unable to fall asleep without some checks by Mom or Dad. Soon enough, he actually starts to fall asleep independently in his crib. However, after 3-4 nights of this he decides to test his parents to see if maybe all he has to do is cry a little louder and make it last a little longer to get back his nighttime cuddles and bottle. That is what we call an Extinction Burst in relation to sleep training.

Now that you know about that dreaded concept and why it may happen, let me tell you that not every child will have this reaction to change. However, knowledge is power. If we know about it then we can prepare and figure out how to handle it. Depending on which sleep training method your family has decided to use, you can see these extinction bursts happen more quickly or it can come a little later. More gradual methods would extend the time it takes for an extinction burst to make its appearance because it may take a little longer for the new changes to take place.

A lot of parents who experience an extinction burst with their child during sleep training start to doubt themselves and the process when this happens. Extinction bursts not only look like the sleep training method isn’t working but it looks like the baby’s reaction to the process has gotten worse. However, an extinction burst can actually be a good sign that changes are taking place and the sleep training is working. Staying strong and committed to your sleep training method is critical during this time because it’s your job to reinforce your new sleep rules and not revert back to any poor sleep habits that you’ve tried in the past. If we are aware that this may happen then we can be pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t!

Sweet Dreams,
Christina Tolsdorf

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