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Why Is My Baby Up for Hours at Night: Split Nights

Baby sleeping through the night instead of having a split night

Picture this: it’s 2 AM, and your child is wide awake, ready to play, while you’re desperately wishing for just a few more hours of sleep. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Split nights, where a child wakes up in the middle of the night and stays awake for hours, are a thorn in many parents’ sides. These nighttime awakenings disrupt the entire family’s sleep, leading to tired, cranky mornings.

Understanding why split nights happen is the first step toward finding a solution. Two main factors often contribute to this problem: overtiredness and under-tiredness. Let’s explore these causes and provide practical solutions to help your little one (and you) get a good night’s sleep.

Drivers of Sleep: Sleep Pressure and Circadian Rhythms

While many things can influence your child’s ability to sleep through the night, the two primary drivers are sleep pressure and circadian rhythms. By understanding how these work, you can better manage your child’s sleep patterns and address the root causes of split nights.

Understanding Sleep Pressure

Sleep pressure is a biological drive that builds up the longer we stay awake. Imagine it as a balloon slowly inflating throughout the day. By bedtime, the balloon is fully inflated, making us feel the need to sleep. For children, enough sleep pressure is crucial for falling and staying asleep through the night.

Understanding Circadian Rhythms

Circadian rhythms are our internal body clocks that regulate the sleep-wake cycle over a 24-hour period. They dictate when we feel awake and when we feel sleepy. For instance, you might notice that your child becomes naturally drowsy around the same time every day. This is their circadian rhythm at work, influenced by external cues like light and darkness.

Sleep Pressure and Circadian Rhythms Working Together

When sleep pressure and circadian rhythms are in sync, your child’s body gets tired at the right time for bedtime. This means their need for sleep is aligned with their natural sleep-wake cycle. So if bedtime is consistently at 7 PM, your child’s circadian rhythm will help signal that it’s time to sleep around that time.

However, if there’s a misalignment—say, your child skips a nap and their sleep pressure builds up too much, but their circadian rhythm isn’t ready to signal sleep until later—it can lead to fragmented sleep, including split nights. 

Split Nights Cause #1: Baby Is Too Tired

Overtiredness is one of the two most common culprits of split nights. When a child stays awake too long, their sleep pressure builds up excessively. Remember the balloon? As the day goes on, the balloon slowly inflates. When a child sleeps, the balloon deflates. If they skip naps or have an irregular sleep schedule, the balloon gets overinflated, making it much harder for them to settle down and stay asleep.

Why Your Baby Is Overtired at Bedtime:

  • Irregular Sleep Schedule: An inconsistent bedtime and wake-up time can confuse your child’s internal clock, leading to misaligned circadian rhythms.
  • Skipped Naps: Missing the daytime sleep your child needs can lead to them being overtired at scheduled bedtime.
  • Excessive Stimulation Before Bed: Activities like screen time or vigorous play can make it difficult for your child to wind down. They spend longer falling asleep which can lead to them being overtired by the time they do so.
  • Late Bedtimes: Sometimes, parents might think that putting their child to bed later will help them sleep through the night or wake up later in the morning. However, if pushed too late, this often backfires, leading to overtiredness and more wake-ups.

How to Prevent Overtiredness and Split Nights

The best way to prevent split nights due to overtiredness is by avoiding overtiredness in the first place.

Here are some practical tips:

  • Consistent Sleep Schedule: Establish a regular bedtime and wake-up time to help align your child’s sleep pressure and circadian rhythm.
  • Adequate Daytime Naps: Ensure your child gets sufficient daytime sleep. Regular naps prevent the sleep pressure balloon from overinflating.
  • Calming Bedtime Routine: Create a soothing pre-sleep routine that includes activities like reading a book or taking a warm bath. This helps signal to your child’s body that it’s time to wind down.

Split Nights Cause #2: Baby Isn’t Tired Enough

Not being tired enough is the other main reason for split nights. When a child isn’t sufficiently tired at bedtime, their sleep pressure hasn’t built up sufficiently. Remember the balloon? If it isn’t fully inflated by bedtime, your child won’t feel the need to sleep, leading to difficulty falling and staying asleep.

​​Why Your Baby Isn’t Tired at Bedtime:

  • Too Much Daytime Sleep: Naps that are too long or too frequent can prevent the sleep pressure balloon from fully inflating.
  • Early Bedtime: Putting your child to bed too early might mean their body isn’t ready for sleep yet, leading to difficulty falling asleep and nighttime wake-ups.
  • Insufficient Physical Activity: A lack of physical activity during the day can result in lower sleep pressure by bedtime, making it harder for your child to fall asleep.

How to Prevent Under-Tiredness and Split Nights

The best way to prevent split nights due to under-tiredness is to ensure your child builds up enough sleep pressure by bedtime. 

Here are some practical tips:

  • Balanced Daytime Naps: Ensure your child’s naps are appropriate in length and schedule for your child’s age. Use the recommended wake windows to ensure that there’s enough time between the last nap and bedtime.
  • Appropriate Bedtime: Set a bedtime that aligns with your child’s natural sleep needs, ensuring they are tired enough to fall asleep easily.
  • Encourage Physical Activity: Make sure your child gets plenty of physical activity during the day to help build up sleep pressure. Outdoor play or active inside games can be great for getting out some extra energy. Just remember not to do it too close to bedtime.

What to Do If Your Child Wakes Up in the Middle of the Night Anyway

If, despite your best efforts, your child wakes up in the middle of the night and doesn’t fall back asleep quickly, here are some tips:

  • Limit Interaction: Keep interactions quiet and calm. Avoid stimulating activities that might further wake your child or signal to them that it’s playtime.
  • Keep the Lights Dim: Maintain a dimly lit environment to signal to your child that it’s still nighttime.
  • Gentle Reassurance: Offer gentle reminders that it’s nighttime and it’s time to sleep without engaging in play or extended conversation. A simple “It’s time to sleep” can help.
  • Avoid Feeding (Unless Necessary): Try not to feed your child unless you are sure they are hungry, as this can become a habit that encourages waking.
  • Consistent Response: Be consistent with your approach each time your child wakes up to reinforce the idea that nighttime is for sleeping. 

The objective here is to help your child understand that nighttime is for sleeping, even if they do wake up unexpectedly. Remain calm and consistent. Over time, this can help reduce the frequency and duration of split nights.

Finding Peaceful Nights

Split nights are one of the most exhausting sleep-related challenges parents face. But by getting to the root of the problem—whether it’s overtiredness or under-tiredness—and using some practical tips, you can help your child (and yourself) get better, more restful sleep. And if you’re still struggling after trying our tips, reach out – we’re here to help. 

FAQs about Split Nights

If my child is up in the middle of the night, should I feed them to help them fall back asleep?

In most cases, it’s best to avoid feeding your child unless you are sure they are hungry. Feeding can become a habit that encourages waking. Instead, focus on gentle reassurance and maintaining a calm, dimly lit environment to help them settle back to sleep.

How can I avoid split nights?

The best way to prevent split nights is to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Ensure your child gets adequate daytime naps to keep the sleep pressure balloon from overinflating. A soothing bedtime routine can signal to your child’s body that it’s time to wind down and sleep.

When will my baby stop waking up in the middle of the night?

Every child is different, but most babies start to sleep through the night by around six months of age. However, it’s common for sleep patterns to fluctuate due to developmental milestones, teething, or changes in routine. Consistency in your approach and patience are key.

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