Recently, I’ve noticed a trend in questions.
“My son is awake for hours at a time right in the middle of the night. Not upset. Just wide awake!”
“My baby is waking around 3am and does not seem tired enough to go back to sleep! No matter what we do, she stays awake for at least an hour.”
“I checked the monitor at midnight, and he was just in there rolling around and talking! It’s been happening the last few nights and he won’t go back to sleep!”
Introducing: Split Nights!
We all have wake ups in the night, including babies. Most of the time, these wake ups serve as a quick “check my surroundings and, as long as everything is the same, go back to sleep” scenarios.
But split nights are different.
How do you know if it’s a split night vs. a normal wake up?
Is your child waking in the night? Yes
Are they able to put themselves back to sleep? No
Do they go back to sleep quickly when you go in to comfort them back to sleep? Yes
This is not a split night.
Is your child waking in the night? Yes
Are they upset? No
Do they go back to sleep easily when you offer measures of comfort? No
This is a split night.
A split night is when your child stays awake for a long period of time in the middle of the night. This typically happens between midnight and 3am. It can feel like they need a full wake window before they’re ready for bed again.
Most of the time, they are not upset. They’re just ready to go!
This is a common issue that many children run into. They go down for bed around 7pm, wake up for their party at 3am, are wide awake for at least an hour and then will go back to sleep.
So, why is this happening?!
We have two main biological sleep processes that drive sleep:
1.) Circadian Rhythm aka our body clock. This is the natural urge to sleep when it’s dark and be awake when it’s light.
2.) Sleep Pressure. Ideally, this builds up throughout the day to allow us to sleep a long stretch throughout the night.
As we sleep, the sleep pressure tank is slowly diminishes. Then, our circadian rhythm takes over to carry us through to an appropriate wake time when the sun is beginning to rise.
With split nights, there is a blip in this process.
Majority of the time, the issue lies in that baby is getting to bed too early. If they are not getting enough awake time throughout the day, then their body’s sleep pressure will not be at a high enough level to push through the long stretches of night sleep until the circadian rhythm takes over. And the circadian rhythm simply can’t handle the workload on its own.
The two must work together. If the sleep pressure ends before the circadian rhythm kicks in, then they wake up and try to build up the sleep pressure.
I don’t want this to turn you away from using an early bedtime, though. There are many situations where an early bedtime is necessary. If the naps were pretty crappy that day and baby is really starting to act tired a little earlier than bedtime usually is, then absolutely get your child to bed earlier than normal. We just don’t want to use an early bedtime too frequently which results in a lack of wake time over a longer period.
How to fix this…
We need to shorten the night or shorten the amount of time that your child is in their bed at night. Typically, they need 10-12 hours in bed. Shoot for right in the middle at 11 hours while trying to find the perfect time frame for your child. So, this may look like 7:30pm bedtime and a 6:30am wake time.
And yes, wake them up in the morning. I know, this is not what any parent wants to hear! But, we want to wake them within 30 minutes of the same desired wake time each morning. This will help to make sure they get good naps and sufficient awake time while setting their body clock to a normal wake and sleep time.
While working on the scheduling, be sure that you are handling the night wakings in a consistent manner. If they are not upset, leave them be to get themselves back to sleep when they’re ready and let the schedule adjustments do the work.
If your child struggles to fall asleep on their own, then now would be a great time to get that straightened out. We want all of the pieces of the puzzle to come together to help your child get the sleep that they need!