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Why CIO isn’t Working

July 24, 2012 |  by  |  1 YO, 2 YO, 9-12 Months, cry it out, parenting
Why CIO isn't Working

For most babies cry it out, if you take my sage advice, should last only a few days. After the first 2-3 days, some babies may complain 5-10 minutes at bedtime but that is not CIO. That is the baby expressing her disagreement with your decision that she needs to sleep.

However other babies will continue to cry progressively LONGER and LOUDER over subsequent nights. You will feel sure that CIO is just not working for your baby, that I am just another Internet idiot, and that the only solution is to go back to whatever “up all night” solution you had going before you attempted CIO in the first place because, horrendous as it was, it’s GOT to be better than THIS.

Or maybe you successfully navigated CIO and have been popping a nightly bottle of Champaigne to celebrate your success for weeks, only to find yourself with a previously happy baby who is now crying. Again. You and your partner have stopped your happy jig and are wondering what the hell just happened?

THIS is what is happening…

Extinction Burst

This is a great phrase to casually drop at the baby playgroup to establish yourself as someone who is capable of pronouncing multisyllabic phrases and is thus very smart (military industrial complex and LIBOR are also good). But these two words are not just helpful for their show-off appeal.

What is An Extinction Burst?

Sleep training via CIO is a method to break out of unhealthy sleep habits by forcing the issue because those habits are keeping everybody awake. It is essentially a form of “extinction therapy” where you are working to make the undesirable behavior (up all night) become extinct by no longer rewarding/reinforcing it. In this case the “reward” is you nursing, popping in the pacifier, rocking to sleep, etc. all night long. And for roughly 70% of you it will be amazingly effective.

However for the remaining 30% of you, your child will amp up the crying. Or take a break for a few days and then resume the crying. This is an extinction burst, which basically means that your child is doing even MORE of the behavior you are trying to extinguish now that you have removed the reinforcer.

Awesome right?

So what do you do about this? You have two choices:

1

Do nothing.

Let your child cry through the burst. Don’t go back to the rocking, nursing, pacifier use that prompted this. Put the cork back in the champaign bottle and wait it out. It’ll pass.

2

Accept chronic sleep deprivation as a way of life.

Go back to what you were doing. Nobody will sleep and it won’t get better for a long, long time. But you’ll avoid a night or two of extinction burst crying.

(Hint: I’m really hoping you choose option #1)

Also file the idea of extinction bursts away for future reference because this is not the last time you’re going to see it. Temper tantrums, whining, demands for (treats, toys, McDonalds), are all behaviors that are prone to extinction bursts.

For example, your child whines for a cookie every time you go to the grocery store. The first few times you give her a cookie because really, it’s just a cookie right? Then you realize you have your own personal Cookie Monster who is now demanding a cookie every time you pop in for a gallon of milk. So you calmly explain that cookies aren’t everyday food and you’re not going to buy them anymore.

Will your child quietly acquiesce? Give you a hug and thank you for being such a thoughtful parent? Or will they go from whining to SCREAMING. And if screaming doesn’t work, how about adding on some THROWING? Or (God save you) SPITTING and BITING? You power through the tantrum and get a few quiet weeks of grocery trips and think (phew!) that’s over with. Only to have the cookie fight start anew.

That’s the joyous experience of the extinction burst. And with every burst you face, you’ll have the same parenting choice that I outlined above. And in every instance I hope you choose #1.

Every single time.

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393 Comments


  1. I just started the CIO method and its alot harder than i thought. My husband does not support me on this at all. He says that its child abuse and wrong. I have zero support and i was just wondering if there was an easier way to do this method. Also, how long should i let the crying happen each night, because it seems like he could just scream all night if i let him. I talked to his pediatrician and she suggested this method, but again i have no other support. Thank you

  2. I need some guidance…

    How long should I let my son cry?

    We have been cosleeping for the last 11 months but I am going back to work and need more sleep so we started the ferber method. We have been consistant with his bedtime routine. Bath bottle book.

    Night 1 cried 45mins and woke 5 times crying a half an hour each time

    Night 2 cried 45 mins woke 7 times crying about half an hour each time

    Night 3 cried 1.5 hours and woke 9 times about 30 mins each time

    Night 4 cried 45 mins and woke 6 times for 15 mins each time

    Night 5 we are reaching the 45 min mark and he is still crying.

    I go in to sooth at the suggested intervals…

    I feel like giving up. What can I do?

  3. Hi Alexis,
    Your website is giving us a lot of insight for sleep training!
    One question I have is – how do we CIO with night feedings still in place? We are not yet ready to wean off night feedings. Right now, we feed him at 7:30pm (then bedtime routine, in bed by 8:15), then dream feed at 11pm, then 3am, then 7am (or earlier if baby is up).

    Would you go in and feed when he cries? Or should I stick to my own schedule and go in to feed, regardless or cry or not? What is the best way to deal with this without reinforcing his crying for attention?

    Thanks so much!

  4. Alexis,

    My 6 month old sleeps great through the night. We nurse until she’s almost asleep and she sleeps 9 hours, wakes to feed, and sleeps another 3. Sometimes she won’t get super sleepy after nursing and will fall asleep on her own in her crib. Great, right? We have a big problem with naps. I’ve been trying for 2 weeks to let her CIO. Sometimes she’ll fall asleep after nursing and sleep for about 35 minutes. But then she will cry for up to 2 hours and not fall asleep. If I put her down wide awake she just cries for hours. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong! I know she can put herself to sleep, so why won’t she? This worked so well for my son. How long should I let her cry for naps? I’m putting her down every 2.5 hours. Help!!

    • So few thoughts.

      – Bedtime is working now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it stops working soon. If her nights turn into 5X demands to nurse, you’ll know why right?

      – If you’re nursing to sleep at naptime then you’re nursing to sleep at naptime. If you’re NOT nursing to sleep at naptime then you’re done nursing to sleep at naptime. Cool? You can’t ping pong back and forth.

      – If she can’t fall asleep without being put down 100% asleep, nap is 1 hour then done. Then rest time is over and you go about your day. If she cries through each nap for the whole day, so be it. This often happens. It’s not easy. If that is unappealing…

      – You could start by intermediately getting her to sleep in the crib sans nursing. Meaning you do your pre-nap routine, put her in the crib, and rub her back/belly until she’s asleep. She’s not falling asleep solo but it’s a strong step in the right direction.

      – What I WOULDN’T do is nurse her to sleep and then let her cry after she wakes up. She’s falling asleep with you/nursing and then waking up solo – she’s not likely to fall asleep in this scenario ūüėõ

      Hope that helps – good luck!

      • Alexis,

        So I started nursing her in the living room with the rest of the fam to try and keep her awake, and then changing her and doing the rest of our nap time/bedtime routine in her room. The first nap took 35 minutes, and she slept for 30. Bedtime took 20, and she slept until 530. Then for nap time this morning, she took 20 minutes to go down and has been out for 50 minutes!!!! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!!! I guess I thought if she was kind of awake when I put her down, then it was the same thing. I did this 2 years ago with my toddler, and it’s funny how much you forget. Btw, your posts completely saved me with him. Can’t thank you enough!!

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