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Why is my baby awake for hours in the middle of the night?

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

If you’ve got yourself an independent sleeper who’s doing one rather long waking (up to 1-3 hours) every night or every couple of nights, during which he/she is happy and energetic if he/she is allowed to do what he wants during the time, well, chances are you’re experiencing a “split night”.

What’s important to realize with a split night issue is that it isn’t a behavioral issue, so being firm with boundaries won’t make the pattern of waking go away. This is to be contrasted with, say a prop-dependence issue which often entails habit formation/breaking. The issue here is biological, arising either from a dissociation between sleep drives, or because there is too much cortisol awash in your baby’s system (both of which I will touch upon later).

Now before you start ruing that your baby isn’t normal, hold that thought. There are studies that show that the practice of maintaining sleep through the night only started after the late 17th century. Prior to this, humans used to sleep in two shifts, much like your little one. For more about this you can read these interesting articles (I particularly commend the first two to history buffs). Because of these studies, there is a growing belief that the human body’s natural preference is for segmented sleep.

Trivia aside, there is no denying that the split night is an inconvenient schedule to maintain. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to end these split nights. But before we delve into the solutions, let’s dig deeper into the causes behind these prolonged middle-of-the-night wakings.

Cause 1: Baby is in bed for more hours than he/she can sleep.

There are 2 basic biological drives that keep us asleep through the night. There is our homeostatic sleep drive (commonly known as sleep pressure), which builds up over the time that we are awake, and our circadian rhythm, which is our natural tendency to fall asleep when its dark (night) and wake up when its light (morning).

When things are going well, at evening time your baby relies on both sleep pressure that has built up from his/her last nap, as well as his/her circadian rhythm to go to bed. Through the night as your baby sleeps, sleep pressure does dissipate, but at the appropriate moment your baby’s circadian rhythm then takes over, keeping your baby asleep until the sun rises.

Now, in a situation where baby’s getting lots of quality daytime sleep and going to bed early, it’s possible that there’s not enough sleep pressure built up across the course of the day to keep baby sleeping until his/her circadian rhythm takes over, resulting in a gap of time where baby is awake. During this time, baby’s circadian rhythm on its own doesn’t have enough horsepower to get baby back to sleep, so he/she is up and active for an hour (or three!) while that sleep pressure builds back up.

If your baby’s experiencing this kind of split-night sleep, then the solution lies into looking at his/her schedule and doing a little fine tuning on the timings of naps, and bedtime (usually moving bedtime backward to introduce more sleep pressure). The main goal is to ensure that you’re hitting the optimum sleep pressure right at the same time that baby’s going to bed for the night.

Cause 2: Baby is getting to bed too late

If baby’s sleeping later than they ought, then the brain instinctually starts upping the cortisol (stress hormone) levels in response. We’ve blogged about this previously here.

Too much cortisol not only makes it tough for baby to get to sleep at bedtime, it can also cause a full wake up at the end of a sleep cycle, which commonly happens around 2 or 3 in the morning.

If this is the case for your baby, then celebrate, because it’s an easy fix. Treat this like any other night time wake up: reassure baby that it’s still bedtime, comfort baby and let baby get back to sleep on his/her own. You may also want to consider moving bedtime up a bit over the course of a few nights to mitigate his/her overtiredness.

Still lost? We’ve got you covered. Schedule a discovery call to speak to one of our children’s sleep experts and get the step-by-step guidance that you need to resolve your split night issue.

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