The key to surviving behaviour change & extinction bursts

If you want to improve your child’s sleep, often things have to change. That makes sense, right? But here’s the thing, change isn’t always easy. And when we’re talking about baby sleep, I want you to be prepared for an extinction burst. Let’s discuss what an extinction burst is, and then I’ll give you the key to surviving behaviour change and extinction bursts for better sleep!

The first rule: be prepared!

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 you get a night or two of more intense crying at bedtime. But for some families, that crying might last four or five nights. Be prepared for this. This is commonly known as an extinction burst.

What is an extinction burst?

In psychology, an extinction burst is a term used to describe a common phenomena that occurs when changing (or modifying) behaviour. When reinforcement for a behavior has been removed, you will often see a sudden and dramatic increase in behaviour that can increase in intensity before it goes away. And when it comes to babies and sleep, the behaviour you may see intensified is crying. But hear me out.

If you already have a baby over 6 months or a toddler who doesn’t sleep well, and you’ve already tried a few things, chances are that likelihood of crying probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise to you.

Because your baby already has set expectations

You may already know that if you change things up at bedtime, your little one will cry. That’s why you’ve established an elaborate routine to respond to your baby’s sleep. It could be a combination of feeding, bouncing, getting them settled in your arms, popping in a dummy (pacifier), and getting them into their cot at the exact right moment for success, right?

At least success in the moment. Because you also know that your baby’s sleep is often not sustainable that way. That’s why you’re reading this.

You may also get more protest at the toddler level when you change your behaviour (although I do try and make bedtime fun at that age so it’s not so dramatic).

Why does it happen?

You already have a set pattern at bedtime, because if you try to do it any other way, your baby is going to cry. And if you don’t give in (you’ve already tried this, right?), then you know they’re going to cry even louder and harder.

This crying from a baby (because they can’t talk) is a common response to behavior modification. It’s known as an extinction burst.

The extinction burst dilemma

An extinction burst occurs when a behavior that has been previously reinforced or rewarded suddenly stops being reinforced (or rewarded).

In other words, when a baby is used to receiving a certain response (ie they already expect a particular behavior from you), and that response is suddenly removed, the baby will increase the intensity and frequency of that behavior (typically crying) to get the response back.

This is because they have learnt to cry for a certain result. In this case, the rocking, shushing, or nursing to sleep that they’re accustomed to.

The more you have tried to change your behaviour, and then given in when the crying increases in intensity, the more dramatic the extinction burst will be the next time around (hence the dilemma).

An extinction burst is not a sign that something is wrong

Extinction bursts can occur in a variety of situations, from working on sleep to weaning from breastfeeding. They can be particularly challenging for parents to navigate, as it can be difficult to tell if a child is seeking attention, confused about the change, 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 is wrong.

So, how can parents cope with these bedtime extinction bursts, without getting stuck in the cycle of intensified crying?

One word. Consistency.

The best way forward with an extinction burst of crying is 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.

It isn’t easy, I know. Behaviour change often isn’t. But when you try and change things, but keep giving in, you’re effectively teaching your baby to cry longer and harder NEXT TIME.

It takes a village, or at least a team

The increased intensity of a baby crying can be stressful and occasionally overwhelming, but it is important to remain calm and consistent to get through it.

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 (like me). That way you can take a break when things get to be too much for you. I get it, Mums, in particular, are not wired to hear their baby cry!

Extinction bursts are temporary

As tough as things may get, don’t forget this one important fact. Extinction bursts are temporary.

Yet good sleep habits can be forever (they’re not temporary). 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. It really is a skill that can last a lifetime.

And if you’d like a solid plan to reduce the amount of crying and make it as easy as possible. Please reach out. My sleep plans are designed to take a holistic view and make it as easy as possible to make changes for better sleep.

Not everyone needs to go through an extinction burst either. That’s why I love working with 3-6 month olds because often it’s pure learning – not re-learning (it’s the relearning that results in an extinction burst). But I do want you to be prepared, just in case. When you’re ready to make a change for better sleep, book a free initial call and let’s talk it through. In the meantime, are you following along on Facebook or Instagram?