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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.


409 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 😛

      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!!

  5. I used extinction with my first and it worked like a charm. I’m on day 6 with my 2nd child and he is not getting any better. He’s 6 months old and cries for about 30-60 mins every time I put him down for sleep. I’m getting really discouraged and so stressed from the constant crying in my house.

  6. Alexis,

    I’ve been training my 6 month old daughter for 2 weeks now. For the first 5 nights the last part of the routine was feeding and she cried for a long time and it was not getting better. Then I came across your website and read that feeding should never be the last step so I changed the order like you suggested. The 1st night with the new routine she cried for 45 min then the 2nd night for 30 min and 15 min on the 3rd night. However she cried for 40 min on the 4th and 5th nights and it made me feel discourage. Does this mean cio is not working on her? I’ve been making sure that she has good naps everyday and have been consistent with her schedule. If I were to stop now I feel that the 2 weeks of trying to sleep train her would go to a waste. She wakes up once or twice at night but she doesn’t cry as much as during bedtime. Could you please help me? I am not sure what to do and starting to get discouraged =(

    • It’s likely either an extinction burst (as described) OR it’s a sign that bedtime is too early. I would assume extinction burst and see if things improve in the next ~2 days. If NOT, I would push bedtime back ~30 minutes and see what develops.

  7. Hi Alexis,

    My 10 month old son overall does pretty well with sleeping through the night. We put him down between 7:30-8pm and most nights he’ll sleep through the night with some bursts of crying here and there that last for a few minutes. However, there can be nights where he wakes up around 11pm and he won’t go back to sleep. In the past I would have him cry it out to close to an hour and then we go in and try giving him a bottle. He does take the bottle but the he’s awak and it take about 2 hours for him to go back down (he’s wide awak by the time he’s “done” with his bottle). When I’ve tried to have him cry it out it can go way beyond an hour. This sounds like the extinction burst you describe in this article. My question is how long do I let him cry it out? Is having him cry 2,3,4,5+ hours ok/safe? If I do have him cry that long do I stay up to make sure he doesn’t choke on his spit or is it ok for me to sleep (as horrible as that may sound)? Thank you for your helping this concerned and sleep deprived mom!

  8. Help!! I am so confused on how to get started and what to do…. It was going good but now he has regressed…. Should he always be put down before he is asleep? How long is too long for him to cry? He is flipping on his stomach and it wakes him up? Help

  9. Well ladies and gents I would like to bring you hope. We are FINALLY getting there with our little 5 month girl. Last week she improved slightly (actually going to sleep in cot sometimes and not feeding every time she woke) but we had one better-ish night then 3 more awful ones. Check Alexis’s words of wisdom – ah, extinction burst doom. We stuck it out, and tweaked things a bit. The things that made the difference were: night feeds in baby’s own room not Mummys, no breast at night, getting into bed with Mummy is not an option (helped by not coming into Mumm’s room so Mummy isn’t as tempted,) realising that when she’s whimpery crying a visit to calm works backwards – she’s more upset after it than before. Controlled crying with timed visits only works if she’s proper upset. Otherwise it’s counter productive. We have gone from waking every 45-90 minutes all night every night and crying for up to an hour each time to sleeping 7-6 with a brief cry at 9;30 not requiring a visit and a feed at 1am. That’s it. That was last night. Im still in shock. And the 2 precious were similar except feeds at 12 and 5 then falling asleep again till 7. It’s blissful. If we can do it you can. Honestly we were so low last week after we’d been working at this for weeks. Now im over the moon.

    • Let me just repeat this in case somebody scans by and misses them because these are KEY INSIGHTS:

      ” The things that made the difference were: night feeds in baby’s own room not Mummys, no breast at night, getting into bed with Mummy is not an option (helped by not coming into Mumm’s room so Mummy isn’t as tempted,) realising that when she’s whimpery crying a visit to calm works backwards – she’s more upset after it than before.”

      Well done – this is huge! You clued into some MAJOR themes there and things worked better because of it. Well done!

      • Thanks alexis. We honestly couldn’t have done it without you. Life is so much nicer – and we have a happy well rested munchkin. We’re going to rest on our laurels for a week or so then attempt to sort nap times. All in the pram up to now!

  10. Hi Alexis,

    We really want/need to do this for our son, and we attempted one night already which was a disaster. He cried for over an hour getting more and more upset. I want to push through and continue, but he’s figured out how to stand in his crib and when he gets really upset he lunges backward. I’m so worried that he’s going to hurt himself by falling and hitting his head hard on the crib when he’s left to cry alone in his room.. Any suggestions?

  11. Hi Alexis,
    Let me start by saying, we’ve been PLS devotees since our baby would not sleep during Month 1. Our baby is now just over 5 months. We’ve done everything you suggested. She wouldn’t sleep in a Rock N Play, bassinet, pack n play, etc.We used the swaddle and swing method and it worked wonders (I wonder if we hadn’t figured that out, would she be considered colicky because of lack of sleep like that first month, who knows?).

    My wife returned to work full time two weeks ago and I’m a teacher so am doing the stay at home dad thing all summer. We started the transition about a month ago. We followed all your steps, slowly reduced the swinging, put the swing in her room next to the crib, and the biggest thing we missed at first pass through was putting her down awake in the swing! Once we started doing this I knew this was going to work and we were headed to Cribby Sleepsville.

    We slowed down the swing until we were putting her in it awake and motionless! Two weeks ago, on my first day off for summer, I decided to try out the dreaded crib for her morning nap….and it worked she had four naps in the crib for 1 hr, 1 hr, and 2 30 min naps.

    She transitioned to the crib pretty well that week, but switched back to getting up 3-4 times at night to feed. Wednesday of last week we had a break through, we had the monitor on mute and both woke up feeling terrible and well rested at 6 am! I had soothed her at midnight, but we don’t know if it was a freak night and she just slept or we accidentally CIOed her and didn’t wake up (she’s in the next room and we share a wall, so we usually hear her).

    Low and behold the next two nights we put her down awake and she only woke up to feed once at about 1 and again at 5, then back down until 6:39! Thing is, I had been feeding her very regimentally all day and up until bed. My wife was busy in her first week back and she missed the 4 pm feed so would only nurse her forthe 6 pm feed, before we started our bath, book, sing routine.

    My wife went away for a bachelorette party on Friday night and of course the baby decided not to follow her newly found routine. Well, I rocked the Ferber method all through the night. Fed her once at 1:30 am and put her back down awake and battle for a 5 min, then 10, and she finally went down in the second 19 min chunk! Well, on Saturday she fussed for a minute, slept until 3 am (I changed and fed her and she instantly went back down) and slept until almost 7! She repeated this same thing on Sunday night when my wife got home and she was amazed!

    So to finally get to my questions, (I’m Irish and tend to be a bit verbose!) Mom has been home earlier this week and we’re back to the baby getting up three to four times. So my wife has been getting home earlier, so I can’t do my big feed at 4. She usually will take 6-7 oz when she usually averages 4. But she gets super distracted nursing now and never has a solid feed. My wife will basically just let her snack for the next two hours and of course baby isn’t interested at 6:00-6:15 right before out bedtime routine. I talked to my wife and she’s on board with being more diligent before bed.

    My big question is how do you know when your baby needs to eat or is just crying to nurse? She’s been pretty good about putting herself to sleep within 5 minutes or 10 at the longest when she’s not hungry. Every time we let it go until 25-30 we break down and she eats for a long while when nursing (about 5-7 oz with bottle). I read somewhere the you should do baby’s age plus 1 for hours needed between the bedtime feeding and the first feed. Is this true? Is 5 months still too early to start CIO/Ferber. How can we be sure she’s not hungry? Also she’s pretty terrible at naps still. She used to only take 4-30 min naps. She’s been better since sleep training and will get up to an hour on her two morning naps. In the afternoon, she wakes herself up after a half an hour screaming bloody murder. I can tell she’s still tired and will sometime give up and let her sleep on me for another 30-45 min. (She would only nap on us for the first 4 months of her life). Where do you stand on CIO for naps? Are the Ferber times he same? I’ve read on your site that naps will come, but what do I do in the mean time? Should I soothe her to sleep for naps? Do I let her cry through the whole thing and then just get her up? I dread the overtired baby (the first month of her life). If we feel, she’s not getting enough milk before bed, should we feed her when she wakes up screaming at 10 (Assuming she ‘ate, last at 6:30) or just let her cry it out? She’s very Dr. Jekyll and and Mr. Hyde. She’s had some great nights and it certainly working since I watch her soothe herself in the monitor and she finally doesn’t scream bloody murder in the car seat since we started training. So many questions. I’d love to hear from you. If you could address just one I’d like to know what to do about the naps. Anyway, thanks so much, your website has helped immensely!

  12. So I have been sleep training my boy for 12 days now with a strict day schedule of naps and food time- which is going well. He’s falling asleep on his own at nap time and when put to bed with very little crying. HOWEVER is still waking in the night crying around 2-4 times. I let him CIO as if I went to calm him he would just get even more upset but the nights are still really bad and I’m flagging. Please please someone advise. He has 2 naps a day a total of 2- 2.30 hours. No nap from 2.30pm till bedtime.

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