As a pediatric sleep consultant, I often have clients come to me and share that things were going well for a few days. Then sometime around days 3, 4, or 5, things went backward.
Q: “What am I doing wrong?! Why isn’t this working?!”
A: You’re doing nothing wrong! It is working but you’re experiencing an “extinction burst.”
What the heck is an extinction burst?!
Well, first, it’s important to understand that this term has nothing to do with the sleep training method often referred to as “extinction.” The term “extinction” in psychology is used to describe the elimination of certain preconditioned, reinforced behaviors, or habits.
A great example comes from this Very Well Mind article:
For example, imagine that you taught your dog to shake hands. Over time, the trick became less interesting. You stop rewarding the behavior and eventually stop asking your dog to shake. Eventually, the response becomes extinct, and your dog no longer displays the behavior.
I’m certainly not equating your child to a dog, but this example simplifies the idea. A habit or behavior is formed based on an external response or behavior – for instance, a baby may become dependent on rocking or feeding to sleep (but then awakens at every sleep cycle looking for this same behavior to help them back to sleep). It’s not that the baby can’t fall asleep independently, it’s that we have preconditioned the baby to behave this way. When we remove these reinforcing behaviors on our end, eventually the baby stops depending on them to fall asleep.
When you’re coaching your baby to learn how to sleep better and attempting to break some bad sleep habits, your baby may experience an “extinction burst”. Often, parents will see improvement for a number of nights and then out of nowhere an extinction burst hits and parents think it’s not working. Far from the truth! This burst is the preconditioned behavior resurfacing just before the behavior is left behind (for good!).
Many have experienced a full night sleep (or close to it) prior to this and the taste of a full night’s sleep has them feeling like a million bucks until the dreaded extinction burst hits… and panic ensues.
Typically, an extinction burst will occur 4-6 nights in, and will last anywhere from 1-3 nights. Often parents feel like giving up BUT I would urge you to stay on course because on the other side is SLEEP!
An extinction burst means that your baby is making that last-ditch effort to hold on to her former poor sleep habits. When you remain consistent with your behavior and support them through this extinction burst, they make it through unscathed and on the other side.
So fear not! Know that the extinction burst means your baby is learning and that better sleep is near for all.