The surprising solution to a no-sleep toddler that Michael Noll received from his doctor.
A strange thing happens to parents when a baby is born. You accept as normal a situation that would, under any other circumstances, send you to the hospital or asylum.
After our second child was born, my wife and I went six months without more than three continuous hours of sleep. We didn’t sleep through the night for nine months. Except for very rare occasions, we haven’t slept past 6:30 in the morning for four years. A friend with a newborn once told me that he felt great on three hours of sleep. On two hours, he said, he’d be fine, but it meant drinking gut-rotting amounts of coffee. On one hour, he was a mess. He wasn’t complaining. If he’d wanted sleep, he said, he wouldn’t have had kids.
The problem is that sleep deprivation presents real dangers. Sometimes my friend was so tired that he could barely manage conversation, mostly staring at the ground and trying not to fall over. Another friend with a newborn brought his older son to my son’s birthday party and wondered, jokingly (I think), if he could just lie on the couch while everyone swung at the pinata.
Eventually the desperation for sleep overrides all other concerns.
For my wife and I, this moment came when our younger son was 8 months old. Just as he’d started to sleep better, his older brother began waking up in the middle of the night, first at 2:00, then 1:45, then 1:30, then 12:45, and finally at 12:30. No amount of cajoling, threatening, pleading, yelling, or appeasing could make him go back to sleep. Eventually we laid a pallet in the corner of our room and told him he could sleep there if he was quiet. But he wasn’t, and so then we brought him into bed, but he only wanted to crawl over us. Pretty soon it was five in the morning. My wife was screaming at me, and I was screaming back because each of us thought the other one had screwed up somehow. During the day, my wife and I went about in near-tears, and our son was a disaster, pitching one fit after another, screaming, hitting, throwing things. He was exhausted, but at night, it was the same thing all over again.
I began nodding off on the drive home from work. My wife narrowly avoided several car accidents. Yes, we were still getting three or four hours of sleep, depending how early we went to bed and what time our son woke, but that wasn’t enough anymore. We’d passed beyond those early days of adrenaline, when you can do whatever impossible task is thrown your way. Now we were on the verge of collapse. One night, after I’d begged and pleaded, I watched my son squeeze his eyes tight and try really hard to fall asleep. But he couldn’t. He’d become an insomniac.
So we took him to the doctor, who said, very kindly, “Well, this can’t go on, can it?” His suggestion: try Benadryl.
In other words: drug the kid.
We asked if that wasn’t, perhaps, a bad idea. The doctor led us through the standard bedtime no-no’s: no sugar before bed, no caffeine ever, no TV in the bedroom. But those weren’t the problem. Our kid just couldn’t sleep anymore.
So we bought Benadryl. The idea was to knock our son out of his new routine of sleeplessness, to jog his brain the way you’d slap the side of a TV. The doctor stressed that this was a temporary solution. We were to give our son the sleepy medicine for no more than a few days. After a week, the doctor called to check in (he’s a good doctor), and when I told him that our son was still on the Benadryl, he explained in patient yet firm notes that we needed to stop drugging our child.
“But then what?” The idea that we might fall back into the old routine terrified me.
“Well, you could try melatonin.”
If you’re not familiar with melatonin, it’s probably because the FDA has never approved its use in anyone, not even adults. It’s a “natural” supplement, like Vitamin C or rattlesnake venom, which, taken in small amounts, can affect the body in positive ways. You’ll often find it sold in airports to help combat jet lag, which makes sense because melatonin is a naturally occurring neurohormone that helps the body regulate its circadian rhythms. It helps you sleep when you’re supposed to. There is no recommended dosage for kids. It’s only been studied on kids with autism, and those kids were given 1 milligram.
“So,” the doctor said, cheerfully, “I’d probably give your son less than that.”
That night, during our bedtime routine: books, bath, and books again, we gave dosed our son and, within ten minutes, watched his eyes begin to flutter. He didn’t make a peep when we laid him in bed. The next night, we didn’t even finish reading books.
“Just go to bed,” he said.
That was the miracle of melatonin. He slept, and we slept. Sure, he occasionally woke at night, but instead of staying up for hours, he’d only cry out once before falling back to sleep. We had a new routine, and we stuck to it.
For two months.
You read that right. We gave our son melatonin for two months. Did we gradually reduce the dose size? Yes. But we couldn’t bear to quit altogether. Every time the house creaked at the pitch of a crying child, my wife and I would wake up, and then, for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, we’d lie there waiting, eyes open, stiff as corpses. Eventually we began taking melatonin ourselves, which was how we discovered its side effects. It made me dizzy and gave my wife a drugged feeling, as if something had been slipped into her drink. Everyone’s dose got reduced after that—for our son, no more than a drop, likely not enough to have any effect at all.
Nonetheless, when we arrived at our son’s three-year checkup—with a different doctor—we mentioned the melatonin, and her eyes got big.
“You did what?”
So would I recommend melatonin for your child? I don’t know. Probably not. But should you ask your pediatrician about it? Maybe. When you’re truly worried about driving into oncoming traffic, it’s time to make a change, even if, later, you’ll wonder if it was the right thing to do.
photo: juhansonin / flickr