Are you struggling with split nights? You know the kind of nights where your baby or toddler wakes at 2am and they’re not going back to sleep anytime soon?
Kind of like jet lag, but without the exotic travel.
You’re not alone!
Split nights are a really common problem.
A lot of parents have been asking me about them, so I’m going to share a little more about what causes them and also share a tip with you that you can try with your little one…
So split nights – or middle-of-the-night (MOTN) wakings as they’re often also called – generally only have one main cause.
Low sleep pressure.
Sleep pressure, or sleep/wake homeostasis as it’s officially called in the science world, is one of the two systems in our body that regulates sleep.
So the longer we’ve been awake, the sleepier we feel, the higher our sleep pressure. And then as we sleep, our sleep pressure levels reduce again.
If a little one goes to bed and their sleep pressure is not high enough, they might fall asleep okay, but then at some point in the night, they can have a ‘split night’ and be wide awake for an extended period. This happens because they don’t have enough sleep pressure in their system to continue sleeping, so they’re wake and are wide awake for an extended period, until their sleep pressure builds up to a high enough level for them to need more sleep.
Now there’s nothing really wrong with split nights – as in, there’s no evidence they’re a problem (in fact there’s actually evidence they were once the norm for human beings ), but as a parent you probably don’t find them much fun!
Unfortunately there’s not a lot you can do in the moment if you find yourself dealing with a split night. It really is a case of playing / lying with them in a dark or very dimly lit room (to avoid disrupting the circadian rhythm) until they’re tired enough to fall asleep again.
But it can be possible to prevent them in the future.
You can do this by making changes to help increase their sleep pressure before bed so they’re tired enough to sleep soundly, for decent stretches over the night without any extended periods of wakefulness.
This comes down to ensuring there’s enough awake time in the lead up to bedtime to allow sleep pressure to build. Two ways of doing this are to aim for a later bedtime and/or to keep a close eye on their naps to avoid too much nap time, too late in the day (which can make it harder for sleep pressure to build up). So you might need to limit the length or adjust the timing of naps.
Exactly what this looks like will be different for every baby and toddler. And that’s because they all have different sleep needs and sleep patterns. So you will probably need to have a bit of a play around to see what works best for your little one.
So give it a go and make sure you give any changes a good week or two to have a full effect.
If you find you see some improvements but the split nights return, or are still sprinkled in there every now and then, it’s still possible to eliminate them, it’s usually just a case of working out what the optimal sleep pattern is for your little one (that gives you restful and predictable nights going forward), which is exactly what I help parents with every day in my Baby Sleep Revolution program.
If you’re keen to find out more about it, click the link below!
 Gorvett, Z 2022, The forgotten medieval habit of ‘two sleeps’, BBC, accessed 8 December 2022, <https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220107-the-lost-medieval-habit-of-biphasic-sleep>