Is your little one waking up in the middle of the night? I mean like really waking up. Waking up and staying up. For hours.
If you’re the parent of a baby who’s dealing with segmented sleep, you know exactly what I’m talking about. This isn’t the middle of the night “go in and comfort baby and he’s back to sleep in 10 minutes” wakeup.
This is a full-blown 3am crib party. It’s got a few names. Segmented sleep, bifurcated sleep, split nights, and it describes a situation where your little one sleeps for a long stretch, then wakes up happy and energetic in the middle of the night, and stays that way for an hour or more.
Fun fact: Back before the widespread use of the electric light bulb, people would regularly sleep for a few hours, wake up for another hour or two, then go back to sleep. Apparently, this time in the middle of the night was a common time for visiting one’s neighbors. There are some attractive parts of the old days, but I have to say, I’m glad we’ve moved past this!
Nowadays, however, the vast majority of us go to sleep at night and, hopefully, sleep straight through until morning. Sometimes our babies don’t get the memo.
The first thing you should know is that this actually is a pretty common issue. Baby goes down at 7:30 at night, wakes up at 3:00 in the morning, parties in her crib for an hour and a half, then goes back to sleep, oblivious to the groggy, miserable day she’s set her parents up for. Be assured that you are not alone.
So let’s take a quick look at why this happens and then we’ll get to how to solve the problem. There are two major drives when it comes to sleep.
Circadian Rhythm: This is our natural tendency to fall asleep when it’s dark and wake up when it’s light.
Homeostatic Sleep Drive (Sleep Pressure): Sleep Pressure builds up over the time we’re awake. Ideally, at bedtime, sleep pressure hits the sweet spot, baby puts her head down and goes to sleep peacefully. As her sleep pressure begins to subside during the night, circadian rhythm takes over and baby stays asleep until morning.
In the case of a split night, we could be looking at one of two reasons why your baby is waking up.
Baby’s not getting to bed early enough OR baby’s going to bed too early.
Now I realize that answer sounds crazy and you may think you’ve just wasted your time, but bear with me as I elaborate.
If baby is getting to bed too late (and too much sleep pressure has built up), the brain has this instinctive response that says, “Hey, you’re tired but you’re not sleeping. There must be a reason for this.” Her natural instinct kicks into gear and starts increasing cortisol levels.
I know you’ve seen this before. A child is up too late and bouncing off the walls. Their body naturally goes into hyperactive mode.
With the increased cortisol levels, it’s going to be very tough for baby to fall asleep at bedtime. AND it can sometimes cause a full wake up at the conclusion of a sleep cycle, usually in the middle of the night.
If this is your baby, you actually have a pretty easy fix! Here’s what to do:
Treat this as any other night waking. Give reassurance but comfort and let her fall back asleep on her own.
Consider bumping up bedtime over the course of the next few nights.
The alternative scenario is that your baby is going to bed too early. If your baby is getting lots of quality daytime sleep and also going to bed early, it’s possible that not enough sleep pressure has built up. If there is not enough sleep pressure to keep baby sleeping until her circadian rhythm takes over, she will wake up.
Unfortunately, circadian rhythm doesn’t actually help your baby fall asleep. So without the appropriate amount of sleep pressure, baby will stay awake until that pressure builds back up. This could take one hour, two hours, or more!
Now, I’m all about early bedtimes. Too little sleep is a much bigger problem for your child than too much. But if your baby is experiencing this split-night sleep, it’s worth looking at their schedule and making some changes to ensure that you’re hitting the optimum sleep pressure right at bedtime each night.
Before you write off early bedtimes completely, remember that there are plenty of legitimate reasons for early bedtimes. For example, if your baby has had a day of bad naps, by all means, get her to bed early!
It boils down to this.
Work at giving your baby the appropriate amount of sleep each day (and night).
This will, in turn, give your baby the right amount of awake time each day (building up the perfect amount of sleep pressure)
Use early bedtimes occasionally as needed
One last piece of advice (and an important one as you make changes)! Don’t expect an overnight fix. Sleep changes take TIME. Remain consistent, be patient, and before too long your baby and you will both be enjoying full nights of deep, restful sleep.
P.S. If you are not sure what the appropriate amount of sleep and awake time is for your child, don’t hesitate to reach out! Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the age of your child and I will get back to you with an answer within 24 hours.