Split nights

Is your little one experiencing split nights? Waking up in the middle of the night, and staying up, for hours?

If you’re the parent of a baby who’s dealing with segmented sleep, you know exactly what I’m talking about. This isn’t the middle of the night “go in and comfort baby for ten minutes until he gets back to sleep” wake up. This is a full-blown 2am party.

It’s got a few names. Segmented sleep, bifurcated sleep, split nights, and it describes a situation where your little one sleeps for a long stretch, then wakes up happy and energetic in the middle of the night, and stays that way for an hour or more.

Why do split nights happen?

This isn’t a new or unnatural phenomenon. Back before the widespread use of the electric light bulb, people would regularly sleep for a few hours, wake up for another hour or two, then go back to sleep. They’d use the time to read, smoke, or visit neighbours. Then after an hour or two, they’d get back into bed and sleep until morning.

Nowadays, however, the vast majority of us go to sleep at night and plan to sleep straight through until morning.

But let me guess… your baby didn’t get the memo.

In the case of a split night, we could be looking at two reasons why they’re waking up. Baby’s going to bed too late, OR… they’re going to bed too early.

Baby’s going to bed too late

If too much sleep pressure has built up, the brain responds from an instinctive, evolutionary perspective. It thinks, if you’re not sleeping, you must be under threat. It then starts upping the cortisol levels, so you can make a quick getaway.

The brain means well, but it’s a little behind the times on our need for lion alerts.

So this can make it tough for baby to get to sleep at bedtime, due to the increased cortisol. It can also cause a full wake up at the end of a sleep cycle, which commonly happens around 2 or 3 in the morning.

If this is the case, you’re one of the lucky ones. Treat this like any other night time wake up. So reassure baby that it’s still bedtime, comfort them and let them get back to sleep on their own. And consider moving bedtime earlier over the next few nights.

Then there’s the alternate scenario.

What if baby’s going to bed too early?

In a situation where baby’s getting lots of quality daytime sleep and going to bed early, it’s possible that there’s not enough sleep pressure. So they’re not tired enough to keep sleeping until their circadian rhythm takes over. This would help them sleep through the rest of the night, so up
they get.

So now that there isn’t as much sleep pressure. And their circadian rhythm doesn’t have the horsepower to get them to sleep on their own. Suddenly they’re up and active for an hour (or three!) while that pressure builds back up.

If your baby’s experiencing this kind of split-night sleep, it’s worth looking at their schedule. It may require a little tweaking to ensure you’re hitting the optimum sleep pressure. And timing this right at the same time that baby’s going to bed for the night.

I know there are plenty of situations that can arise where you’ll want to get baby to bed a little early. If they had a day of short naps and is clearly tired a half hour before bedtime, it’s absolutely the right move things earlier.

But try to avoid putting baby to bed early more than one or two nights in a row. We want to prevent overtiredness but we also don’t want them in the cot at night for more time than they’re actually capable of sleeping.

So if baby’s had a tough day and didn’t nap well, it’s fine to get her to bed a little early. That sleep pressure is likely already built up, but try to get her back onto the regular schedule starting the next morning.

I know that this can all start to sound a bit complicated. But the more you understand the nuances and know where to make those minor adjustments, the better your baby will sleep. And the less they’ll run into these regressions, setbacks, and interruptions.

My Nap Guide can help you if you need some guidance on the right amount of sleep and daytime structure for your baby.

Final Thoughts on Split Nights

One final thing to consider if you’re getting ready to tackle this situation. This is not likely to be an overnight fix. Once baby has gotten into this habit, getting them out of it can take some time.

Like any attachment or dependency, overcoming it is an incremental process. And it’s likely to meet with some push-back, so if and when things get tough, remember your goal.

You’re giving your little one the skills they need to sleep soundly through the night. And that contributes to their well-being in so many different ways.

Stay consistent, be patient, and before too long split nights will be a thing of the past. And your baby and you will both be enjoying full nights of deep, restful sleep. 

If you feel like you need support to help with your baby’s sleep issues, please join my waiting list to find out more about working together.