The Dreaded Split Night: How To Fix Your Baby Waking For Hours At Night

picture of a cute african american child in his crib awake and smiling
Christine Brown

Christine Brown

Is your little one waking up and staying awake for hours at night? If so, I’m sorry. It’s hard to be up for an extended period at night with your little one. What could be going on is the dreaded split night.

Luckily you landed here so I can walk you through the causes of split nights and how to fix them so your little one (and you!) can go back to getting healthy, consolidated sleep!

In This Post:

What is a Split Night?

A split night is when your otherwise healthy baby or toddler starts waking up for 1+ hours at night, they are wide awake and ready to party!

Unlike other night wakings, you’ll know your little one is experiencing split nights if:

  • There is only one long night waking – not multiple wakes each night
  • It happens every night or every few nights
  • Your baby or toddler is happily awake, although they can get frustrated and upset in time if they can’t fall back asleep
  • You can’t comfort, soothe, feed or sleep train your little one back to sleep

Sleep Science Behind Split Nights

Split nights can be caused by several factors which I will explain below. As you read this, please keep in mind, I’m not a scientist and I know most visitors to my site won’t be either. I am boiling this down fairly simply in concepts that are easy to grasp.

Sleep is driven by two primary factors:

  1. Sleep pressure – builds up in our body while we are awake and we need adequate sleep pressure to fall and stay asleep. The pressure decreases during sleep and is at its lowest after a full night of quality sleep.
  2. Circadian rhythm – our internal sleep and wake mechanism, guided by the sun and darkness. It helps to regulate appropriate sleep and wake times to happen around the same time each day.

So your little one should build up the necessary amount of sleep pressure from being awake enough during the day and before bedtime so they can settle into sleep at a normal time and sleep through the night. Normal bedtime for babies and toddlers is usually between 6:30-7:30 pm.

Sleep pressure dissipates throughout the night and then our circadian rhythm takes over. This allows our babies and toddlers to sleep the appropriate amount of time overnight and wake at a normal time in the morning. (usually between 6-7 am)

When a split night occurs the sleep pressure and the circadian rhythm are out of alignment. What this means is that your baby may sleep for a good stretch, usually 8-9 hours and then wake up, ready to PARTY at 2 am!

During this waking, the sleep pressure will build, helping your child to resettle to sleep once the circadian drive takes over. Usually your child will then resettle for a few more hours, until their normal wake time in the morning or they may try to sleep in later.

What Causes Split Nights & How Can I Fix It?

Let’s explore the causes of split night and how to fix them:

Developmental Leaps

This isn’t related to the science behind split nights above – this is an outlier that can also cause split nights.

Whenever our children are going through anything major developmentally there can be a regression in sleep. If your little one is working on some fancy new skills, like crawling, walking, pulling to stand, or a language explosion, they may wake up in the middle of the night thinking about or practicing their new skill.

This is normally temporary and once your child has mastered the skill they should go back to sleeping normally.

Fix For Split Nights Due to Developmental Leaps

Lots and lots of practice time during the day so your little one doesn’t have to practice at night!

Bedtime is Too Early

If your little one is taking short naps, you may need to move bedtime earlier to prevent overtiredness at bedtime. This is an amazing strategy because your little one will make up for their sleep debt at the beginning part of the night and sleep until their normal time usually. This helps to keep kids better rested, but it can backfire if the early bedtime goes on for too long.

A bedtime that is early for too many days can create either an early morning wake-up or a split night. For the split night, we are asking our little ones to stay in bed for longer than they are capable of sleeping, resulting in a long period of wakefulness in the middle of the night.

Fix For Split Nights Due to Bedtime Being Too Early

  • Know how much sleep your child needs each night and their average wake time.
  • Slowly push bedtime later to have your baby or toddler in bed for only the time it takes for your little one to fall asleep and meet their sleep needs.
  • Wake your baby at their normal time in the morning, even if they had a split night, and give exposure to morning light. Even though you will both be exhausted, waking your baby at its normal time will allow them to get on an age-appropriate schedule that can help to improve naps.
  • If naps are continually problematic, you may need to work on teaching your little one to be a better napper to avoid the short nap / early bedtime loop that creates split nights. We can help with this! Schedule a discovery call to chat with us.

For example:

Most babies and toddlers need 11-12 hours of nighttime sleep. Let’s say your baby needs 11 hours of sleep at night on average.

The average wake time is between 6:00-7:00 am for babies and young toddlers. Let’s say your baby wakes on average at 6:00 am.

Slowly push bedtime later in 15-minute increments to find the ideal bedtime that meets your child’s sleep needs and rectifies the split nights.

Too Much Daytime Sleep

On the flip side, if your little one is napping too much during the day, this can also create split nights. Some babies LOVE to nap. Many parents fall for the “never wake a sleeping baby” myth so they let their babies and toddlers nap as long as they want to. Even though the break during the day is DIVINE, it can result in your child not having enough sleep pressure at night to sleep until the circadian rhythm takes over, resulting in a split night.

Fix For Split Nights Due to Napping Too Long

  • Know the range of how much sleep your child needs during the day.
  • Look at how sleep is being distributed throughout the day to ensure that you aren’t going over the upper limits of the range
  • Cap naps if they are running too long, to ensure they aren’t sleeping too much and also to ensure that they have enough sleep pressure left for subsequent naps.

For example:

Your little one needs 3 hours of daytime sleep and they are taking two naps each day.

If you allow your little one to sleep for 2.5 hours for morning nap, one of two things will happen:

  • Your little one will boycott or take a short second nap. This results in the need for an early bedtime (which can contribute to a split night as we reviewed above)
  • Your little one will take a good second nap, but may run out of sleep pressure at night, resulting in a split night.

Frequently Asked Questions About Split Nights

How Long Does It Take to Fix a Split Night?

With your patience and consistency, usually 7-10 days, although I’ve seen it happen much quicker so there’s hope!

How Should I React To My Child During the Split Night?

If your little one is happy in their crib they don’t necessarily have a need. I recommend giving time and space to figure it out and try to get a little more shut eye if you can.

If your little one gets upset and you need to go into the room:

  • Keep the lights low. Light is stimulating and sends the message that it is daytime. This can confuse the circadian rhythm and stop melatonin production, making it harder to return to sleep. Red nightlights are best if you do need light.
  • Stay in your child’s room if you can. Leaving the room and being exposed to light can be stimulating.
  • All business. We can comfort and reassure, but try not to be too much fun. We don’t want the split night to be fixed and your little one keeps waking up because they love the snuggles with you!
  • Be patient. Remember your little one can’t physically go back to sleep until their body is ready so try to stay calm and not insist on sleep until they begin showing signs of being ready to resettle.
  • Look for sleepy cues. If your child begins yawning more than once or starts rubbing their eyes or turning their head side to side like “no” you’ll know your little one’s circadian rhythm has taken over and they are ready to go back to sleep. Now is the time to encourage your child to resettle.

In Conclusion:

I hope you got *everything* you need to help your little one back to sleeping through the night! If you need help, we’d love to help you troubleshoot the split night or any other factors that may be getting in the way of your family getting the rest you need. Schedule a discovery call today and let’s explore working together.

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