If you’re planning on addressing your little one’s sleep issues, I want to prepare you for something that is crucial for you to know before beginning.
When making a change to a child or baby’s sleep habits, things usually get worse before they get better.
For some babies, that might mean a night or two of more intense crying at bedtime. For some it might last four or five nights. With toddlers, you’ll likely experience some extreme bedtime protest, anger or tantrums.
This shouldn’t come as a big surprise to you. You may have even fantasized about putting your child into bed wide awake and walking out of the room. You know that your child would protest this. Maybe very intensely. You begin to wonder if it’s even possible to achieve independent sleep. (Spoiler alert: it is possible!)
Let’s start with where you are now.
You’ve likely perfected the bedtime routine that works best for your child. Maybe you start with a feed and then rock your baby to sleep, hold them for another 15 minutes to make sure they are in a deep sleep, then carefully lay them down in bed.
Maybe you have a toddler and bedtime has morphed into a process that takes about an hour (on a good night!). After brushing teeth and getting PJs on, you read a few books, tell them a story, sing a certain song, respond to several requests for drinks of water and (some nights) a snack. Finally, you lay next to your child until they are fast asleep.
Please don’t hear any judgement coming from me. I know you are doing your best. You know your child better than anyone and you have learned to soothe them to sleep the way they respond best to. Because struggling with a child who doesn’t sleep well is hard.
If this is you, if you are regularly (even painstakingly) helping your child to sleep and you are ready to make a change, we need to talk about the term extinction burst.
An extinction burst occurs when a behavior that has been previously reinforced is no longer reinforced. Eventually that behavior will cease, but it will become more intense before it stops.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say your child typically asks for a cookie right before dinner. You usually say "no" once or twice, but typically end up giving them the cookie when the whining begins because you have nineteen other things to do, it’s been a long day, and you just can’t deal with their behavior in that moment. (I know, I’ve been there.) Now let’s say you decide that this needs to stop. No more cookies right before dinner. When your child asks for a cookie the next night and you say “no”, they will likely ask again and begin to whine (going to the behavior that you usually give in to). That whining will turn into tears or anger when they aren’t getting the cookie. It may even turn into a full-blown tantrum right there on the kitchen floor. Now if through all of this, you continue to stay “no”, they will eventually understand that they are not getting the cookie and they will stop protesting. That’s extinction burst.
Let’s bring it back to sleep.
Maybe your baby is used to receiving a feed when they are falling asleep and when they wake throughout the night.
Or your toddler has grown accustomed to crawling into bed with you at some point in the night.
Whatever behavior you plan to address, expect an extinction burst. Your child’s behavior will increase in intensity and frequency before it changes.
Removing your baby’s dependency on feeding to sleep? Expect a few hard nights of increased crying and wakings.
Removing your bed as an option for your toddler’s sleep? Expect intense protest and increased pushback when you begin.
Remember, extinction bursts are a normal part of a child’s behavior.
You’re thinking “that all sounds fine, but how am I supposed to respond?”
I’m glad you asked!
Consistency is the key to success.
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 your child’s increased efforts to elicit the desired response.
If you’ve made the decision to remove feeding your child to sleep, stick with it. Even through the intense protest. That is how you will be successful. It doesn’t mean you can’t offer comfort, reassurance or even sit with your child. If at any point you give in to the protest and give them that thing that you had tried to take away, you’ll be back to square one. And I hate to say it, but next time you try to remove it, their protest will increase (because that is how they got what they wanted last time).
It’s not easy. Your child will be upset. But it’s your job to remain calm and consistent. (Tip: include family or friends in this process to help you out!)
When you hold fast and do not continue to reinforce the behavior that you are seeing, your child will learn a new behavior.
Eventually when your toddler asks for a cookie before dinner and you say “no”, they may just walk away. They remember when their protest didn’t yield any change in your answer the last few times.
Once you remove your assistance in helping your child to sleep, they will protest, but they will also learn a new way of putting themselves to sleep (self soothing!).
And that is how you can make that fantasy come true. You will be able to say goodnight to your (wide awake) child, walk out of their room, and allow them to peacefully fall asleep on their own!
My final advice for you as you step into this unknown space of shifting your child’s behavior is this: Remember that an extinction burst is temporary, but the rewards you (and your child) will gain from healthy sleep habits will benefit them for weeks, months and years to come.