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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.


485 Comments


  1. My daughter is 1 year, and is not a terrible sleeper, but she is not a great sleeper either. A typical night involves my husband or I rocking her to sleep. (Yes, I know, I read the blogs). We rock her for as little as 5 to as long as 30 minutes. She will then typically only wake us 0 to 2 times a night. Not so bad. When she wakes up , she will again need to be rocked or held 10 minutes to an hour. During the longer sessions, I try to put her down, bc she is asleep, maybe even snoring, and then when she is in the crib, she pops right back up. So, sleep training, tried it, but unsuccessful, because she doesn’t stop crying. She doesn’t cry it out. What I don’t read here, is how long? 2 hours, 4 hours, all night. Most people say 10-45 minutes and boom baby cried herself to sleep. Well, I tried 20 minutes, soothing every 5-10 minutes, then I rocked her to sleep. Then I extended to an hour, soothing every 10 minutes, then I rocked her to sleep, finally I let it go 2 hours, soothing every 10 to 30 minutes, then when I went to rock her she was pissed. Hitting me, which she has never done before, and it took another 45 minutes just to calm her down. I feel like I am taking a mild sleep situation, and turning it into a worse situation. Please advise! Soothing involves rubbing, kissing, and hugging bc she is standing, but not picking her up.

  2. We just started sleep training our 10 month old this week and we’re now on day 3. We just put her down and she’s been crying for about 40 minutes now. We go in to check on her and she’s either sitting up or standing at the crib. I also decided this would be a good time to train her to sleep without a pacifier so it’s now extra tough trying to conquer both.

    On day 2, she cried for almost 2 hours straight and woke up 3 times that night. It’s getting really tough and I keep reading posts of children who started sleeping through the night after day 3. It’s very discouraging. I wonder if there is anyone else in the same shoes as us.

  3. I did total extinction with my 16 month old a few days ago. We are probably on day 5 or 6. He was using me as a human pacifier at night so I did a bedtime routine of nurse, bath, Jammie’s, books, cuddles and bedtime. He was doing really good but yesterday started teething again. He woke up around 1 am (had been asleep since 8) and started screaming his head off and was standing in the crib. The past couple of days whenever he would wake up he wouldn’t stand because he was too tired, just cry and grumble a minute and then go back back to bed. I went in to comfort him because I didn’t know if it was his teething that caused this, but now I am worried that it’s the dreaded extinction burst! Do you think that time going in to comfort him has caused a problem? I held him for maybe two minutes and put him back down in the crib after telling him it was still bedtime. He cried for about 5 minutes before going back to sleep. I guess my ultimate question to finish off the novel I’m writing (sorry!) is when is it ok to go in and comfort baby if he wakes during the night due to teething, not feeling well, bad dream, etc.? How many days do I need to do total extinction before I can go to him when he wakes up? The previous night he only woke up once at 4 am and grumbled a bit, then slept till 7 so I was really thinking he was getting the idea!

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