What to Do About Split Nights?

what to do about split nights - sleep training coach

Is your child ready for a dance party in the middle of the night? Does your child wake at 3am and acts like its morning? They’re full of energy and won’t respond to a quick comfort because they are ready for play… for hours!

There a couple of terms used to describe this situation: split nights, segmented sleep, or bifurcated sleep. Split nights are characterized by a long stretch of sleep, then a period of happy, energetic behavior in the middle of the night, then eventually sleep again.

This is actually a common occurrence, you’re not alone. On top of this, your child will wake up in the morning like nothing is amiss, meanwhile you’re groggy and miserable the next day. So, what can you do when this happens?

Sleep’s Drivers

Let’s first look at what drives sleep in the first place:

  1. Circadian rhythms are our natural response to light and dark cycles.
  2. Sleep pressure is our homeostatic sleep drive.

Sleep pressure builds up over the time that your child is awake. Then at bedtime, with the right amount of pressure, your child lays down and falls asleep. During a lighter sleep cycle in the night, your child’s natural rhythms’ response to the dark will keep your child asleep till morning.

There are two possible culprits that can cause split nights when your child bounces awake during the light sleep stage. These culprits are actually the exact opposite of each other, which makes finding the perfect bedtime all that much harder.

Culprit 1 – Going to Bed Too Late

up in the middle of the night

It’s often assumed that pushing back your child’s bedtime will make them more tired and sleepy. However, there is a point where too much sleep pressure has built up and our bodies natural response is to start pumping out cortisol. Cortisol is a stimulating hormone. Our body ‘thinks’ that there must be a survival reason for staying awake, so even though you’re overtired, you start increasing cortisol production.

So, extending your child’s bedtime puts your child into an overtired, hormone-induced wakefulness. You will notice that your child will have a tough time falling asleep at bedtime. And on top of that, at 3am in the morning at the end of a natural sleep cycle, the hormones are still adding this extra alertness and overcome the pressure from the circadian rhythms.

The solution!

For the waking’s in the middle of the night, you can go in and reassure your baby that it is still time to sleep. Offer a bit of comfort then let your child fall back to sleep on their own.

To prevent this from happening, slowly move your child’s bedtime up. Do it in 15-minute increments to get your child use to the new bedtime.

Culprit 2 – Going to Bed Too Early

The second reason for split nights, is a bedtime that is too early. If your child is napping well during the day and has an early bedtime, not enough sleep pressure has built up at bedtime, which causes that sudden energy at 3am. Eventually after an hour or so, enough sleep pressure builds back up and your child will go back to sleep. In the meantime, you’ve also been up for an hour or so and desperately crave sleep.

The solution!

This one is a bit tougher. You don’t want to push back bedtime too much or you run into the overtired situation. So, your overall schedule might need some fine-tuning so that enough sleep pressure is present at bedtime. Make sure the wake-window between the last nap and bedtime is appropriate.

If your child had a terrible nap, then by all means, put her down early. However, try to avoid an earlier than normal bedtime two nights in a row. That means that the day after an early bedtime, try to get back to the regular sleep schedule, including all wake-up times.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Finding the perfect bedtime might seem impossible, but even adjusting the current bedtime by 10 minutes could help make those midnight dance parties a thing of the past. The more you understand the nuances of where to make these adjustments, the greater chance for success and a full night’s sleep.

And I wish that I could say that one night of adjustment will eliminate split nights, but it may take a few nights for your child to break this habit. They may even push back, but remember, teaching them independent sleep skills will help them become better sleepers throughout their whole life.

If you’d like some help with how to stay consistent, be patient, and teach sleep skills, our team would love to chat with you. Our desire is for you and your child to enjoy full nights of deep, restful sleep.

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