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Sleep Training Secrets: Understanding Extinction Bursts

Baby crying in their crib. More crying in the middle of sleep training is normal, this is called an extinction burst.

Does this scenario sound familiar?

For months, your baby has been waking up every hour, only returning to sleep after a feeding or a cuddle. Or your toddler leaps out of bed every three minutes, only settling down if you’re lying next to them. 

So, you finally muster up the courage to sleep train. You understand it might be a challenging process, but you’re ready. You anticipate a tough start that gradually improves until it works  –  that’s the plan. But, much to your surprise, instead of less crying, there seems to be more each night.

You might be thinking: 

“How’s that possible?” 

“Should I stop?” 

“Is sleep training not working for my child?”

The sleep training is working. The increase in crying, rather than a decrease, is a part of the process. It has to do with something we, in the sleep coaching community, call an “extinction burst”. It’s a very typical part of not just sleep training but any significant behavior change. 

Keep reading to learn all about extinction bursts, why they occur, and what actions you can take. Let’s get your child sleeping through the night. 

What Are Extinction Bursts Really?

So what exactly is an extinction burst? It sounds a little scary, doesn’t it? But don’t worry – it’s just a fancy term used by behavior experts to describe a perfectly normal reaction when a familiar routine or habit is stopped. Let’s break it down. 

Why extinction bursts happen: the psychology behind them

You know how sometimes, when you try to quit something – like munching on those late-night snacks or reaching for your phone first thing in the morning – it seems to get harder before it gets easier? That’s basically what an extinction burst is.

In the world of psychology, an extinction burst happens when a behavior that used to get a result doesn’t work anymore. It’s a brief, often intense, increase in that behavior as an attempt to return to the familiar. It’s the brain’s way of saying, “Hey, this used to work. Maybe if I try harder, it’ll work again.”

When you apply this to sleep training, you can start to see why there might be more crying at first. Your child was used to falling asleep with your help – maybe through feeding, cuddling, or being rocked. But now, they’re learning to fall asleep on their own. That’s a big change, and it’s not always an easy one. So naturally, their response is to cry more – it’s their way of saying, “This isn’t what I’m used to. I want things to go back to how they were.”

Identifying the signs: what does an extinction burst look like?

So what can you expect to see if your little one is going through an extinction burst during sleep training? Every child is different, but there are a few common signs you can watch for. These include:

  • Increased crying or fussing at bedtime
  • More frequent night wakings
  • Resistance to going down for naps
  • Clinging or increased need for comfort

These signs may be tough to deal with, but remember – they’re temporary. They’re a sign that your child is learning a new skill, and it’s an important step on the path to healthy sleep habits. It may seem harder in the short term. But just remember – you’re on the right track. Stick with it, and you’ll soon see the benefits of your efforts.

Sleep Props: The Invisible Ties That Bind

Let’s talk about the ties that may help hold your child’s sleep routine together: sleep props. If you’ve been exploring sleep training, you might have come across this term before.

Common sleep props and their role

Think of sleep props as habits or routines your child relies on to fall asleep. These could include being rocked to sleep, nursing, or having a special lullaby played. Or even just the comfort of a parent’s presence.

While these props can initially seem comforting and harmless, some can turn into hurdles when trying to teach your child independent sleep. For example, if your child relies on nursing to drift off, they may find it hard to fall back asleep during normal nighttime awakenings without the same condition. And that’s where sleep training and understanding extinction bursts come in, helping your child learn new ways to fall asleep independently.

The domino effect: How sleep props influence sleep patterns 

Let’s picture this scenario: you’ve made it a routine to cuddle your child until they fall asleep. It’s a cozy ritual, but it also sends a message: “I need mom or dad to sleep.” So, when your child wakes up in the middle of the night – a normal occurrence – they don’t know how to fall back asleep without you.

That’s the domino effect of sleep props. The methods your child uses to fall asleep initially also become the methods they rely on to fall back asleep during the night. Here’s where the concept of extinction bursts enters the picture. When you start changing these sleep props, your child may resist this unfamiliar change. It’s their way of saying, “Wait, where’s my lullaby?” or “I need my cuddle to fall back asleep!”

This resistance can manifest as an extinction burst, which is a sudden increase in the very behavior (like crying) that you’re trying to decrease. It can feel like a setback, but it’s actually a sign that your child is grappling with these changes and starting to learn new sleep habits. And remember, this is a temporary phase in the process of sleep training. They’re adapting to their new sleep strategies and, with your consistent support, they’ll get there.

Mapping the Journey: The Extinction Burst Process in Sleep Training

Now that we’ve connected sleep props to extinction bursts let’s examine the process of an extinction burst during sleep training.

From dusk till dawn: A typical extinction burst timeline 

Sleep training can feel like a rollercoaster. Initially, the first few nights may be challenging as your child is adjusting to new sleep habits without their old props.

Then, just when you think things are improving, there may be a sudden increase in crying and resistance. This is the extinction burst—your child’s intense but last-ditch effort to return to the familiar sleep props. The silver lining here is that this phase typically doesn’t last long.

For most children, the extinction burst happens within the first week of sleep training and lasts a few days. But remember, every child is different, and this timeline can fluctuate.

Clock watching: Understanding the variations in time frame

Though having a general timeline is helpful, it’s essential to remember that each child’s journey is unique. Some children may experience an extinction burst earlier or later than others. The intensity of their reaction can also vary.

Rather than focusing too much on timing – consistency and patience are key during this process. Remember, the extinction burst is temporary, and the reward of helping your child achieve peaceful, independent sleep is on the other side.

Age and Development: The Changing Landscape of Sleep

One question that often comes up is, “Does my child’s age impact sleep training and these extinction bursts?” The answer is yes, it absolutely does. The age and development of your child can significantly influence how they respond to sleep training and to changes in their sleep routine.

Age matters: How baby’s age influences extinction bursts

If your little one is under a year old, they’re absorbing so much about their surrounding world but still heavily depend on you. Changes to their sleep routine can therefore cause a strong reaction, which is why approaching sleep training with an abundance of love and patience is so crucial.

Now, as your child grows older, they start to understand more. They learn that even if you’re not right there when they fall asleep, you’re still nearby. This can ease some aspects of sleep training. However, an older child might also be more set in their ways and resistant to changes, which could make the extinction burst more intense or prolonged.

In other words, while older children might grasp the concept of change better, they can also be more stubborn about preserving their existing sleep habits. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s a sign of their growing independence. But it does mean that as a parent, you’ll need to be consistent and patient, even when the process feels challenging.

Choose wisely: Age-appropriate sleep training methods

There’s a wide variety of sleep training methods, and it’s vital to select one that aligns with your child’s age and development. For instance, the ‘Cry it out’ method might be too intense for younger babies, while older toddlers could respond better to the ‘Fading’ method, where you gradually decrease your presence at bedtime.

Picking the right method can make a big difference in how successful you are. At Tender Transitions we work with you to find the sleep training method that’s the best fit for your family so that your sleep training journey can be as smooth as possible.  Remember, no matter which method you choose, it’s normal to encounter some rough patches, like those extinction bursts. Stay consistent, provide lots of love and reassurance, and soon enough, your child will be sleeping through the night.

Managing Extinction Bursts 

Navigating through extinction bursts is one of the most challenging aspects of sleep training. In the midst of this stressful and confusing moment, having a toolbox of strategies can make a big difference. Here are my top tips to help you:

📚 Arm yourself with information: Understanding the science of sleep and how your child’s brain works can really help. When you learn about sleep training, including extinction bursts, you’re preparing yourself for what to expect. It’s like mapping out a road trip — knowing the way can make the journey a lot easier. This knowledge will help you stay committed and understand that those tough moments are actually signs your little one is learning a new way of sleeping.

📝 Have a solid plan: Before starting the sleep training journey, make sure you have a clear, step-by-step plan. It’s your roadmap to navigate those late-night wakings and tantrums. A well-defined plan can help you respond consistently to your child’s behavior, which is crucial for successful sleep training. Remember, the goal isn’t to eliminate crying; it’s to teach your child the skill of self-soothing and independent sleep.

🛏️ Set them up for success: Ensure your child’s sleep environment supports good sleep. A dark, quiet room, a comfortable temperature, a filling bedtime meal, and a consistent bedtime routine can all signal to your child that it’s time for sleep. These factors can help your child feel safe and relaxed, setting the stage for a smoother transition to sleep and lessening the intensity of extinction bursts.

😌 Remain calm: Your child can sense your stress. Try to remain calm and composed, even when your child is having a difficult time. This is easier said than done, especially in the middle of the night. Deep breaths, a calm voice, and a peaceful demeanor can help both you and your child get through those challenging moments.

🤝 Have a support system: Sleep training can be a challenging process, so lean on your support system. That might be your partner, a friend who’s been through it, or even an online community of other parents. Our Child and Baby Sleep Training Support Facebook Group is an amazing space for parents who are working through sleep training or have questions about their child’s sleep. Sharing your experiences and challenges can give you new insights, encourage you, and help you feel less alone on this journey. 

🎯 Remember the goal & celebrate small wins: Keep your eye on the goal: helping your child learn to sleep independently. Celebrate the small victories along the way, whether it’s the first time your child falls asleep without a sleep prop or an extra hour of uninterrupted sleep. Each small win brings you one step closer to your overall goal, and it’s important to acknowledge these moments of progress. They’re signs that you’re moving in the right direction.

👩‍ Seek professional guidance if necessary: Extinction bursts can be particularly challenging to navigate alone. A sleep coach can provide the extra support and guidance you might need during this time. They will be able to assist you in understanding and managing these tricky phases effectively, offering advice tailored to your child’s needs. Just as you’d seek a mechanic for a complex car problem, seeking professional help, in this case, is not a sign of weakness but a proactive step towards better sleep for your whole family. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you need to – together, we can navigate this journey.

Moving Forward

Tackling your child’s sleep journey is not always a straight path, and facing challenges like extinction bursts can feel overwhelming. But remember, each night is a fresh start towards progress and I’m here to support you if you need it. 

At the heart of this process is your child’s well-being and the promise of restful nights for your whole family. Stay the course, be patient with yourself and your little one, and remember — each step, no matter how small, is progress. 

Here’s to better sleep, brighter days, and a parenting journey filled with love, understanding, and resilience.

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