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Understanding Split Nights - Why Your Baby Is Up for Hours and How to Cope

The Midnight Party, AKA Split Nights


Being up in the middle of the night for an extended period of time is never fun. I understand the frustration that can come with split nights, especially if they are ongoing!


In this blog, we’ll explore four potential causes of split nights, how to troubleshoot, and how to manage split nights when they’re happening. (Number 1 and 2 are the most common culprits that I see in my practice!) 


First up, what is a split night?


Split nights are when your baby or toddler is up for an extended stretch of time in the middle of the night. They don't settle back to sleep shortly after being changed, fed, or comforted. Sometimes, they're also referred to as "midnight parties." During a split night, your baby will likely be happy and wanting to play.


While very common in the first 12 months, I’ve talked to and worked with many families who have had split nights pop up in toddlerhood, as well. I often get questions about them when I put up a toddler question box on Instagram!


What causes a split night?


Split nights can have various causes, no matter the age they occur. These may include sleep totals and naps, development, sleep environment or changes that are happening in their life. 


If a split night is a one-off or has only been a few nights, wait a few days to see if they resolve on their own. We don’t want to make any big changes to routine, timings, or environment when the split night is developmental and will pass on its own. That will cause new issues to pop up!


If the split night has been consistent for 2+ weeks, though, there are steps we can take to try and resolve them.


Split Night Cause 1: Sleep Needs


The most common reason I see persistent split nights in infancy and toddlerhood is a sleep needs versus expectations mismatch.


Compare your baby or toddler's actual sleep totals to how long they are in bed or are being "expected" to sleep each day. Additionally, have a peek at naps. Are they very long? Keep a little log for a couple of days so you can objectively see if there is a mismatch. Tweak accordingly, such as capping a nap or aiming for a later bedtime. Try a change consistently for 1-2 weeks.


If you realize that your little one is getting more sleep than they need or you’ve been trying to make them sleep for too long, don't worry! It's an easy fix! This is common, at least in part due to the sleep training industry being so pervasive. Sleep trainers very often portray the narrative that more sleep is always better.


It’s important to remember that your baby or toddler can only get so much sleep in a 24-hour period. And sleep needs vary, quite vastly. There’s a big range of normal! Find out more about sleep totals and normal infant sleep in general in this blog HERE.


Split Night Cause 2: Development


Are they learning to walk, having a language explosion, or showing signs of any other significant skill or emotional development?


Big periods of development can have an impact on sleep. Crawling and walking are two skills that commonly impact sleep. And this makes total sense! How exciting is it for a baby to be able to crawl around their space on their own?


The same goes for walking. Think about what a huge change that would be in their world. Of course they want to practice these skills all the time! And yes, this sometimes means, in the middle of the night.


Focus on lots of connection, optimis e routines, consider close proximity sleeping if you aren't already, and give them plenty of time to practice new skills during the day.


Split Night Cause 3: Changes


Has anything changed recently? Has your baby or toddler started childcare? Is there a new sibling? Has their sleeping location changed? Have they been ill recently?


These changes can disrupt sleep and cause your baby to need extra connection and seek proximity overnight. Support them with LOTS of connection in the time you are together. Give it some time, and reconsider sleeping arrangements so you can meet their need for proximity if you think that may be at play.


Split Night Cause 4: Environment


The environment can also cause or contribute to longer than optimal wake periods at night. Go back to the basics and optimise by thinking about:


  • Temperature

  • Clothing - dress them for the coolest part of the night

  • White or pink noise if outside noises could be bothering them (keep volume under 50db and the source 2m away from the baby - you can download a dB reader app to check this!)


Coping with Split Nights


I completely understand they are not fun when they are happening. To support your well-being during these periods, consider going to bed earlier. If possible, take shifts with a partner, or have them take the first shift in the morning while you sleep in. If you’re not already, bed-sharing or co-sleeping can often help. At least you’ll have somewhere comfortable to lay during the longer period your little one is awake! Perhaps you could even consider if a floor bed is right for your family


If your little one is up and wanting to play or practice their new skills, it won’t do you any good to try to continually lay them down and get them back to sleep. Give them some time to build up sleep pressure (if the cause is too much daytime sleep) or practice their new skills, and then help them back to sleep.


You’ll want to keep things dark during the split night. Use a night light, preferably a red light night light as red light does not impact melatonin in the same way that white or blue light does.


It can also help to shift attention away from sleep and instead focus on everyone remaining regulated during these wake periods. This will hopefully minimise their length and disruption.


Conclusion:


Troubleshooting split nights can be challenging. Understanding the potential causes and knowing how to troubleshoot them can make a significant difference. Split nights are often a normal part of your baby's development, are due to sleep totals or big changes happening in their lives. Remember, this phase is challenging but temporary – you’ve got this!


Dr. Jessica Guy, Founder Infant Sleep Scientist


 

Hey there! I hope this helps!


I strive to provide as much free and high-quality evidence-based content as possible! I also offer products and services for more in depth education or support to optimise your and your baby’s sleep and well-being in a responsive and attuned way.


Find information about my 1:1 consults HERE

Infant Sleep 101 Course HERE

Struggle Free Toddler Sleep Course HERE

Gentle Night Weaning Guide HERE


a baby smiling, holding up a diaper


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