Split Nights: What Can I do About it?
"My child wakes up at 1am and doesn't go back to sleep until 3:30 am. What's going on?"
I see this happening a lot between 11 months and 2.5 years. Not uncommon if it happens before or after, but what I usually find is that little ones waking up and staying up in the middle of the night are usually going through some changes. So let's talk about what can potentially impacting your child's nighttime sleep. HINT: It's not because you are responding to them!
First, let's understand what they are and why they happen
I consider Split Nights a pattern of wakings in the middle of the night that happen consecutively for many nights in a row. Basically, the child wakes up and has a hard time falling back asleep, no matter what we do to help. These wakings can last for hours, and it may seem like your child is ready for the day (if it wasn't for the night outside...)
Split nights usually happen when there's an imbalance in daytime sleep, and it is common when there's a developmental leap or when children are in the process of dropping a nap, for example. But before you think you may be doing something wrong, you are not! Nothing wrong with you, or your child. During the first years of our children's lives, there are so many changes happening for them and they all impact nights. Sleep needs change A LOT, so when we see a pattern like this it doesn't mean there's a problem, it means there's a sign we need to readjust things around. Don't worry! I will teach you how.
Here are some ideas that can help your little one (and you) as their body adapts to all the changes happening for them at the moment:
Sleep Environment Check if there's anything in the sleep environment that could be too stimulating when they wake up (a light coming into the room, noises, temperature...) Some little ones are more sensitive to light than others, so trier-and-error is one of the best ways to find out.
Sleep Totals When I learned about this concept in 2016, right after trying desperately to fit baby baby into a unrealistic sleep schedule, I felt free of the guilt of not being able to. For months I thought my "child wasn't sleeping the way he was supposed to for brain development" (seriously, have you heard this too? How did you feel about it? Well, I felt pressured and afraid that I was causing my baby to have sleep problems.) So let me explain, in a period of 24 hours human beings have different sleep needs (I do, you do, my children do and yours too. We are ALL different. And our sleep needs may vary from day to day depending on our sensory experiences too.) Let's say your little one needs 13 hours of sleep in a period of 24 hours but 4 of those 13 hours are spent asleep during the day, it is normal to expect that your little one won't need 12 hours of sleep at night, but instead around 9 hours. Doing the math, this means that if your child goes to sleep at around 8 pm, waking up at 5 am corresponds to their sleep needs (Isn't it mind blowing? I truly hope this clarifies things for you as much as it did for me years ago.) This will also impact the Homeostatic Sleep Pressure*, responsible for our drive to sleep and that's why knowing all this is so important, because you can now observe your little one's sleep rhythms to find out if there's a sleep imbalance.
Bedtime is not Optimal for Your Child I know you may be rolling your eyes to this one and you are so right! I agree... Children's sleep is constantly changing. Well, the good news is that if you are open to see what's hidden behind those changes, you won't be so surprised when things shift and change again. So here's what I recommend observing: Is it possible that bedtime is too early these days (considering what I explained above aka Sleep Totals)? Or Do you think the gap between the last nap and bedtime is too long? I am not a fan of asking parents to keep constantly tracking their children sleep because I consider rhythms healthier than by the clock schedules, however here's when I recommend keeping notes and experimenting with different bedtimes for a couple of days in a row.
Fading If the suggested below doesn't help closing the split nights, you can shift bedtime later each night by about 15 minutes (trying to extend the last nap by holding your child to sleep if it works for you and your little one). At the same time you do this, you will also wake your child 15 minutes earlier each day - but no earlier than 6:30am for about a week or until the gap at night is closed. Then you bring bedtime back 15 minutes each day and stop waking your little one in the morning, although I suggest having a wake up time frame of one hour just so you can have a somehow predictable day ahead.
I hope this post helps a bit!
*Homeostatic Sleep Pressure: Represents our drive to sleep and it builds up in our body as our time awake increases. The drive gets stronger the more we stay awake and decreases when we sleep, reaching its lowest levels after a night of sleep. The homeostatic sleep pressure process begins to build up again as soon as we wake up.