Splits Nights: Stopping those 3am Dance Parties

Is your little one waking up in the middle of the night? And not just for a quick feed and back to sleep routine, but really waking up. I’m talking about staying up for hours on end. If you’re a parent dealing with a baby who’s into segmented sleep, you’re nodding along right now. This isn’t your typical “go in, comfort, and back to sleep” situation. It’s more like a 3:00 a.m. dance party, and it’s got a few names: segmented sleep, bifurcated sleep, split nights. Whatever you call it, it describes when your baby or toddler sleeps for a good stretch, then perks up like it’s daytime in the middle of the night, staying up for an hour or more, before falling back asleep again until morning.

Here’s the deal: there are two big factors in sleep—circadian rhythm and sleep pressure. Circadian rhythm is our body’s internal clock that makes us sleepy when it’s dark and awake when it’s light. Then there’s sleep pressure, which builds up the longer we’re awake. Ideally, sleep pressure builds throughout the day, hitting the sweet spot at bedtime so baby drifts off easily and stays asleep until morning thanks to their circadian rhythm.

But when we’re dealing with split nights, there are two likely reasons behind it. First, your kiddo might not be hitting the hay early enough. Or, on the flip side, they could be hitting the pillow too early.

Cause One: Going to bed too late

Yes, I do realize I gave two completely contradictory and confusing explanations for split nights. If your baby or toddler is going to bed too late at night, then too much sleep pressure builds up, triggering the brain’s “time-to-stay-up-all-night-and-flee-from-lions” response from the caveman days, which elicits a spike in cortisol levels. This can make it tough for your little one to fall asleep initially and can lead to an extended wake-up in the wee hours of the morning because of the extra cortisol in their system. Not fun. The fix? Slowly bring bedtime a bit earlier throughout the next couple of days.

Cause Two: Going to bed too early

But what about the other scenario? What if your kiddo is hitting the hay too early? In that case, they might not have enough sleep pressure built up to keep them snoozing until morning. So, they pop awake, and without enough sleep pressure or a strong circadian rhythm to knock them out again, they’re up and at ’em for a while until they can build enough sleep pressure back up to fall asleep again.

Now, I’m all about early bedtimes. But if your baby’s pulling these split-night shenanigans, it might be time to tweak their schedule to hit that sleep pressure sweet spot just as they’re nodding off for the night. This may mean extending wake windows, transitioning to a new nap schedule, or capping naps.

I get it; there are days when an early bedtime is a lifesaver. If baby’s had a rough day with naps, it’s totally fine to bump up bedtime. But try not to make it a habit. We want to avoid overtiredness, but we also don’t want baby in the crib longer than they’re able to sleep.

I know it sounds like a finely tuned ballet, but the more you understand these nuances, the smoother things will go. And yes, it might take some time to break this habit. But remember, you’re giving your little one the tools they need for a good night’s sleep, and that’s worth it. Stay consistent, stay patient, and soon enough, you’ll both be enjoying those full nights of restful sleep.

Really struggling with these 3 am dance parties and want someone to give you a step-by-step path to fix these issues, once and for all? Check out my sleep packages and book a call with me. I’d love to help you and your little one get the rest you both so desperately need.

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