Split Nights and How to Get Back on Track
Perhaps you’ve never heard the term “split night”, but if you have a little one, it's highly likely you’ve found yourself with one too many sleepless nights. These nights are normal in the beginning when your baby is eating frequently and only able to sleep in short increments. As they get older sleep patterns begin to lengthen naturally. With that said, it is common to still find yourself waking too often and in need of some gentle sleep coaching to sort things out .
But, what happens when your child is wide awake at 2 am and appears to have no intentions of falling back asleep anytime soon, yet you've tried just about everything you can possibly imagine to try and get them back to sleep. What in the world is going on? Well, without even realizing it you've found yourself in a pattern of what is called split nights.
This is a whole different sort of middle of the night wake up. In order to understand what a split night is and how to resolve it, first you have to understand what causes it.
There are two factors that drive sleep.
First, circadian rhythm is the body’s natural biological clock. This internal clock runs on a 24 hour schedule and is responsible for letting your body know when you’re tired and when you’re ready to be awake. With newborns and young children it is commonly referred to as the sleep/wake cycle. It is important to expose your baby to light in the morning at an appropriate time and then create darkness for them during periods of sleep. This helps to regulate the circadian rhythm early on. Even though we are born with this body clock sometimes little ones need a bit of tweaking or rewiring of sorts to get them on track.
Second, sleep pressure builds up between sleep cycles. When your child takes a nap there needs to be ample amount of awake time before bed so that enough sleep pressure can build otherwise getting them to sleep might be a struggle. Together sleep pressure and circadian rhythm help keep your child asleep through the night. When they are working in sync their circadian rhythm will start making them sleepy around bedtime with the natural release of hormones, and sleep pressure has built up over the day to make them tired and ready for bedtime.
Let's break it down. There is a maximum number of hours that children can sleep during the night. This varies by age and development. For example, a 6 month old can sleep on average ten to twelve hours at night where a 3 or 4 year old may only need closer to only ten hours. When your child goes to sleep their sleep pressure is high and their circadian rhythm cues the body’s natural release of sleep hormones.
Over the course of the night sleep pressure slowly wears off and when it does the circadian rhythm will take over and keep your little one sleeping until they’ve had their maximum hours of sleep.
At this point your child will wake around their normal time with their internal clock cuing them it’s time to start the day. That is why when you put them to bed early one night they may still sleep until their natural wake up time rather than waking early. When a split night happens the sleep pressure and circadian rhythm stop working with one another. If you have a child who consistently sleeps a solid chunk of hours the first half of the night and then wakes at 2am seeming wide awake and well rested this may mean they have fallen into a pattern of split nights. You may have found yourself trying just about everything to get them back to sleep with no success. Then, all of a sudden they seem tired again and after a few sleepless hours they fall back asleep. Once they are awake long enough in the night sleep pressure is able to build again and they fall back to sleep.
So, let’s talk about the common causes of split nights-
Poor napping + Early bedtimes
We’ve all been there, right? The overtired cranky baby or toddler who is refusing their nap. Or perhaps an activity of sorts left you in a bind and nap time just didn’t happen.
Often you may hear me talk about how early bedtimes can be beneficial for children, and they can, but sometimes they could cause more damage to your child’s sleep schedule.
If your little one has a bad nap day it is completely acceptable to put them to bed early, in fact, I encourage it! If their normal bedtime is around 7:30 you may even put them to bed as early as 6 because they’re just barely holding on. If you are familiar with childhood sleep then you are probably fearful that keeping them awake any longer could make for a very messy bedtime, and some middle of the night wake ups. Many of you have worked so hard to get to where you are with sleep and you’re terrified one wrong move and it will all come undone. I get it! If your little one is so overtired from a day of no napping, putting them to bed early will help them catch up on lost sleep, help prevent them from going to bed even MORE overtired, help them stay asleep through the night, and as their sleep pressure dissipates their circadian rhythm will carry them through to their normal wake up time. So, on an average night they may sleep 10 hours but on this particular night maybe they slept 12. So, in the right application an early bedtime is extremely beneficial. When you find yourself in this situation multiple days in a row with poor naps and you continue to put them to bed early to prevent more over tiredness, you’ll probably end up with split nights.
This pattern will lead to your child being in bed sleeping their maximum number of hours their body can handle only to be up ready to start their day at 2 or 3am because their sleep pressure and circadian rhythm have separated. Or, they will begin to wake up earlier and earlier each day. If this sounds familiar, keep reading.
Sleep disruptions + Developmental milestones
Sometimes split nights aren’t caused by poor naps or early bedtimes. Often your child is approaching a developmental milestone and their sleep is disrupted by new motor skills like crawling, pulling themselves up, or learning to walk. These are exciting new skills and they aren’t just physical but their brain activity is rapid firing. Sleep disruptions like this can often be temporary but it can be necessary to use some gentle sleep coaching to get your child back on track.
So now that we’ve discussed what a split night is and why it can happen, you’re wondering what you can do to fix it, right? Let's talk..
In order to “undo” a split night pattern you are going to have to make some changes to your child’s current schedule.
If you have found the cause of their split nights is from poor napping, I’m sorry to say it but you must work on naps.
Sometimes tweaking the timing of naps can make a huge difference. Make sure they aren’t going down for a nap too late as well as too early, but too late of a nap can really throw them off especially when they’re in a cycle of being overtired already. In this scenario you want to make sure the naps happen and in that case it may mean you need to hold, rock, nurse, or even drive your child around in the car just to guarantee some sleep at first. They may be short naps but that’s a start, and you can work on lengthening them over time as well as withdrawing any sleep crutches.
When I’m working with clients I always reiterate our long term goal which is to get more quality sleep for all.
In order to achieve that goal sometimes we have to stretch their little one here or there. If a nap doesn't happen we might go with an early bedtime, but what if those naps don’t happen for the next 3 days in a row either? Well, I can’t give you all my tricks but we have to get creative and help them get sleep without getting overtired, but while still avoiding a split night pattern. Pushing your little one sometimes is necessary in order to break up a vicious cycle. It’s going to be a challenge but getting your little one to bed a little later will be essential in breaking the pattern they’re stuck in.
If you are dealing with split nights and your child falls back asleep at 5 am and then sleeps until 9am this is part of the problem.
Again, in order to break the cycle they are stuck in you will have to wake them in the morning at an appropriate time so that their circadian rhythm can begin working properly.
It’s difficult to wake a sleeping child, especially when they were up in the night and so were you, but you will have to if you want this pattern to end. Wake your child between 7 and 7:30 giving them plenty of exposure to light. The circadian rhythm is largely driven by exposure to light and darkness. This will help their body know that it is time to wake up and start the day.
It is important to keep in mind, it takes a few days to help shift the circadian rhythm so your child will still be waking in the middle of the night for a few days until it begins to take effect.
You’ll have to stick with these changes and put in the work until their sleep drives begin working together again, but keep in mind the long term goal and it will help you in those exhausted moments!
If you still find yourself struggling with sleep after implementing some of these strategies, a sleep package may be what you need in order to get things on the right track. Contact Lauren@sweetdreamscoach.com.