Tinto logo

'My baby is awake for hours at night’: what causes split nights

Profile photo of the author
Lindsey Clark
Infant sleep consultant

We’ve all been there, right? Our child wakes in the night and, instead of quickly drifting back off to sleep, they’re wide awake wanting to play for hours… or, worse still, they’re wide awake screaming for hours! This is what’s often referred to as a split night.

I remember it well and I’ve definitely been in the position where I’ve tried every trick in the book to get my little one back to sleep so I can just get a few more hours of shut-eye myself. It’s extremely frustrating and, in that moment, it feels like you may as well give up and just stay up for the rest of the night!

But all hope is not lost! Split nights CAN be resolved, I promise you.

So, what causes a split night?

Now it’s important to note that this doesn’t apply to very young babies whose body clocks have not yet developed their circadian rhythm and do not recognise the difference between day and night. When they are very young, babies need a lot of daytime sleep to feel rested and to ensure they don’t become overtired.

1. Balance between day and night sleep is ‘off’

This is the most common reason for a split night. If your child is having more daytime sleep than they actually need or their naps are not well-balanced throughout the day, then this can make them more wakeful at night. This can then create a vicious cycle, because they then want to make up for the lost night sleep during the day, and the whole problem continues.

2. Going to bed too early

If your baby seemed tired or perhaps missed a nap you may need to put them to bed early. However, sometimes this can cause them to wake in the early hours and because they’ve had a long block of sleep already, they just don’t feel tired enough to drift back off. So make sure your child’s wake windows are about right for their age.

3. Developmental phases

When babies are learning new skills, their sleep can be affected. This is particularly true when there is a leap in physical development such as rolling, walking, or crawling. Babies get excited by their newfound freedom and, unfortunately for us, they want to practise their skills at night. If this is the case for your little one then I can reassure you that if you remain consistent, this phase will pass. Make sure they have lots of opportunities to play during the day and master those new skills!

4. Ready to drop a nap

Sometimes split nights can be a clue that your little one is ready to drop a nap. If this is the case then once the nap is dropped, so long as your child is still getting adequate day sleep, nights should start to improve.

5. Needing to be settled

While some babies will have a long restful sleep even if they are assisted to sleep by a parent, most who have been rocked, fed, or cuddled to sleep will expect that each time they wake. The problem is that during the night there is less sleep pressure built up than at the start of the night, so even with your help it may be very difficult for your little one to get back to sleep. You may want to consider self-settling if you’re struggling with this.

6. Parental interference (me included!)

Often parents jump straight in and try to get their child back to sleep in any way possible as soon as they wake up (I’ve been there!) However, this can actually be detrimental as we can end up interrupting the settling process and actually waking our children up and over-stimulating them!

If your baby is awake but happy in their sleep space, my biggest piece of advice would be to leave them to it! Far too often we rush in even when they aren’t calling for us. If your little one does get upset then by all means go in and comfort them, but ensure that you are consistent with your response each time. Try to avoid taking them out of the room or playing with them as this can reinforce the wake up!

Whatever the reason for your child’s split nights, it can be resolved. It’s all about identifying the root cause and having a consistent approach so your whole family can get a peaceful night’s sleep once more."