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Let's chat about the 'extinction burst'

Before we delve into explaining what an extinction burst is, it's important to understand how we, as humans, learn. For most of us, we don't learn something after only doing it once. We need time and practise to master new skills. The harder a task is and the more foreign it is from anything else we've learnt, the more time we need to to learn the skill.

Babies don't need to 'learn' how to sleep (contrary to popular opinions), they know how to do this just like they know how to digest food and communicate to their caregivers. What they do need to learn is the state of sleep; that is the behaviours that need to happen in order for sleep to result. For example, having a number of activities or actions that happen consistently and part of a routine associated with sleep will, over time, help little one's go to sleep. Having a bath, getting into their pyjamas, having a milk feed and feeling relaxed and sleepy are all healthy sleep habits that continue to support sleep from infants, through childhood and into adulthood.

When we introduce a new sleep association or responsive method it's a change for our little person. If they have never used white noise, always been swaddled or you've always held them until asleep then transferred to their own cot - the change will take time to adjust to. Your little one is unfamiliar with these new associations and behaviours and its normal for them not to have positive impact on sleep straight away. When we learn new skills consistency is key. This includes consistent feed and sleep timings, how you settle your little one to sleep and the consistency in remaining calm, responsive and patient when doing so.

“Successful learning will include setbacks, the re-emergence of previous extinguished behaviours, the development of new behaviours that need to be managed and the ever-changing landscape that is child development”. -Meredith Blampied, Clinical Psychologist.

What is an extinction burst?

When we make changes, such as using a settling method or changing routine, it is common to see an increase in the undesired response or behaviour from our little ones. This is known as an extinction burst and it is a child's way of testing the waters to see if the new way of settling and new routine still applies or if they can go back to what they were previously doing e.g. rocked to sleep, contact naps. It might feel like you’ve taken 3 steps forward and 2 steps backwards working on your little one's sleep, but rest assured this is a very normal part of learning a new skill and creating change.

It’s important to recognise and expect the extinction burst otherwise you might feel like the wheels have fallen off and the change isn’t working - which results in inconsistencies and parents reverting back to what they were previously doing e.g. assisting their little one to sleep.

How long does it last?

It only usually lasts a day or two but can see behaviour escalate above what the family were previously experiencing. It is really common to see a regression in the settling support (extinction burst) around day 4 and 10.

Do I need to change anything during an extinction burst?

No! Consistency is key and so to is having a contingency plan. If you're working on settling your baby in their cot instead of offering contact naps then keep consistent in doing so. Having a contingency plan here is important though; how long will you attempt to settle them in their cot? What happens if they only nap for 20min, or don't nap at all?

This is where having the 1:1 support and guidance of a Family Sleep and Wellness Coach can really benefit what you're trying to acheive. To have personalised and tailored support, specific for your family and the encouragement and help to create the desired change.

If you need some sleep support and you are ready to make a change I'm here for you! Book a discovery call and let's chat about your little one's sleep and how I can help your family get the rest you all need to thrive.

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