As an infant and child sleep consultant an ‘extinction burst’ is a term I use very frequently, but if you’re anything like me, when you hear it for the first time you are probably going to think ‘An extinction what now?? And what does this have to do with my baby’s sleep?’ So let me explain.
The term extinction burst is a psychological concept that relates to all kinds of different behaviours. When a particular behaviour is encouraged through action it is reinforced. For example, if you reward your child with a smile when they say please or thank you, this is reinforcing good behaviour in the term of good manners – no problems here! However, if your toddler throws a tantrum because you refused to give them another cookie but then you relent just to get them to calm down, this action will further reinforce to them that in order to get what they want they just need to have a meltdown. If you want the tantrums to desist you must stop the reinforcement. So instead of giving in to the demand for another cookie you would calmly ride out the tantrum. This is what is called extinction.
When changing unwanted behaviours, extinction can work very well and can have a rather quick effect. But often, after a few days of no longer reinforcing the behaviour you want to stop, your child will cotton on that something has changed and instead of just letting that unwanted behaviour easily melt away, they will ramp it up to really get your attention. So, in the example of a child throwing a tantrum to get what they want, they may scream louder, kick harder and carry on for longer than they initially did, all in the hopes that you will cave again and give in to their demands. When the initial behaviour gets worse, this is what is known as an extinction burst.
So how does this relate to your little one’s sleep? If your baby has an established sleep association such as feeding to sleep, being rocked to sleep, falling asleep on you – in essence, relying on you to fall asleep or get back to sleep – they haven’t mastered the ability to self-settle. You might be at the point where you are utterly exhausted and are ready for your baby to learn how to settle and re-settle themselves, but in order to gently teach your wee one to do this, you must stop the reinforcing behaviour (feeding, rocking, walking etc) and replace with another settling method.
After a couple of days of some resistance you might have started to see some progress and think you’ve cracked it, and it only took 4 or 5 days. You’re onto a good thing and starting to feel really confident. Then all of a sudden your baby starts waking at night again, crying even louder than before, or fighting their naps or resisting going to sleep at all in the evening. This can leave you feeling completely bewildered and wondering what on earth is going on. Perhaps it was a mistake to try and change your baby’s sleep habits, why did you ever think it would work? It wasn’t that bad feeding your little one to sleep every few hours……Cue an extinction burst, a sudden and unexpected burst of the behaviour you’re trying to change.
Instead of throwing in the towel because you think this new settling method just isn’t working, rest assured, this bump in the road is actually a sign that everything is on track. Developmentally, your little one is having a completely normal response to the extinction of your ‘normal’ response to their night time cries or overnight wake-ups. As hard as it may be in that moment, getting through an extinction burst by continuing to be consistent in your new approach is actually leading you and your child one step closer to more restful nights and more restorative sleep.