You Did WHAT to Your Child?

photo by juhansonin

The surprising solution to a no-sleep toddler that Michael Noll received from his doctor.

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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

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About Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories, a blog that offers creative writing exercises based on stories and novel excerpts published online. He also teaches writing at Texas State University. Michael's work has appeared at American Short Fiction, Narrative Magazine, and The Owls.

Comments

  1. Steven G says:

    Most parents will judge you for writing this, but I’ve been there and can only feel compassion for your plight. That said, you know what works GREAT for kids with insomnia? Vigorous exercise – lots of it. Swim classes. Outdoor sports. Let them run their little hearts out. Make sure they get up nice and early too. Also dinner time should be at least 4 hours before bed. We found that this combo knocks our little party animal out like nothing else. The exercise produces natural melatonin, as does exposure to the sun. The feeding time makes sure they don’t get a second wind late at night. The early rising makes sure their clock is set properly. If you find yourself slipping into the old pattern give it a try. Worked wonders for us!

    Bonus tips: bathtime after dinner with some drops of lavender essence. Night time snack of chamomile tea with crackers or a small piece of fruit. No TV or video games after bath. Staring at bright lights messes with your internal clock. Keep home lighting dim past a certain hour. Tell them stories in the sleepiest voice possible, almost like a hypnotist. Really drag it out and yawn a lot. Let your own sleepiness become contagious.

  2. Joanna Schroeder says:

    One of my brothers gives his oldest daughter Melatonin too, you’re only the second person I’ve heard of who has tried it. I would eliminate it at this point for sure, but it’s true, you cannot risk your lives driving sleep deprived.

    I also agree with everything Steven said above. One thing I learned that has helped my kids a lot is to have them draw pictures of things they love on pieces of paper. You can help. Things that make them happy. Then put the photos next to their bed so they can look at them at night if they wake up. They can turn on a nightlight, look at the photos, and then lie back down. We learned this from a trauma therapist after my oldest had a major trauma.

    It’s helped a lot with both kids.

    Definitely go dark an hour before bedtime – no TV, no games, etc, too.

    Wishing you luck.

  3. Hi, I also have a lot of compassion for your situation. We have been to talks put on by a sleep researcher named Wendy Hall a couple of times. We have followed most of her suggestions with a large degree of success. There is one thing that both Michael Noll and Steven G. mentioned that went completely against the sleep experts advice, and that was that bathing right before bedtime can be a bad thing for some kids. Being in the bath, with water all over them can just end up stimulating kids, and stimulating your kids right before bed will likely be counterproductive.

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand that it sounds like your son had much bigger issues than just having a bath before bed could explain. I am only mentioning the bath issue because I often hear people saying that they have a good bedtime routine and they think that bathing is calming, and it is for adults, but when kids get in the bath, they laugh and splash and yell and throw things and all of that is very stimulating.

    Wendy Hall, the sleep expert that I mentioned, has a video on Youtube of a talk she gave. The talk is very long (over an hour), but I made a blog post about it that has descriptions to the various topics covered in the video and links to those particular sections. It might be useful to people as a bit of a resource. Here is the link.
    http://pandademonium.wordpress.com/2013/06/22/sleep-the-battle-worth-winning/

    • Oh man. I’m glad to hear that other people have children that get fired up by baths, even lavendar’d and chamomile’d and leisurely ones. Oh, he likes those. He loves the scent. But the kid has gone baby wild after a bath every time since he stopped hating them at around 3 months.

  4. Steven G says:

    @Joanna, I LOVE that idea of happy drawings in their place of refuge. Thank you for sharing that

    @Mark, that’s a solid point. I agree that a bath RIGHT before bed is a bad idea, this is why we try to do it after they make that big mess called dinner (which is purposefully nice and early). At that point they’ve got at least 3 hours before they have to sleep – I actually like to give them one last hurrah after bath. Spin them around, get them laughing and carrying on a bit before we tone things down with a board game, drawing or story time. 2-3 hours is plenty for winding down. Of course sometimes this backfires and I just wear myself out and fall asleep right next to them, but that’s still preferable to pulling our hair out at 2AM cause the lil buggers are bouncing on the bed and laughing at our frustration

    • Michael Noll says:

      Thanks for the suggestions, everyone. I’ve found that when we’re going through sleep issues–or baby/child issues of any kind–we’ll try anything. My wife and I will ask friends and go online to find strategies for dealing with the problem. So I really appreciate you describing your own routines. One of the benefits of a site like Good Men Project is to provide a forum for parents to share their approaches to the issues that we all face.

      @Mark, I’ll definitely check out Wendy Hall’s talk. And I’ll share your blog with my friends who have twins.
      @Joanna, I like the idea of drawing pictures of things they love.
      @Steven, I agree about the importance of exercise. The frustrating thing was our son would run himself ragged, and STILL wake up in the middle of the night and stay awake for hours. There’s nothing more frustrating than having your fallback solutions fall short.

      Thanks again everyone.

  5. I am an insomniac myself. From infancy on, it me took hours to get to sleep every night. The only time I slept well at all in childhood was when I slept with my sister, who is 10 years my senior (and a champion sleeper).

    When my daughter was born, we kept her in bed between us for 3 months. If she couldn’t sleep, I would lay her atop my chest, where she would immediately drift off. At 3 or 4 months, we moved her to her own bed. There, she began to exhibit signs of insomnia.

    I began sleeping in her room, making sure we touched until she was deeply asleep. I did this for naps as well as at nighttime. She did not sleep thru the night until she was 18 months old, but my hand on her back was usually enough to allow her to get back to sleep.

    Some people’s insomnia is actually just a need for closeness. We humans are pack animals, after all.

    • Michael Noll says:

      Well said, Kitti.

    • My sister was the same way. I am 5 years her senior and my stepmother was always amazed at how fast she would fall asleep when she was laying with me.

      My daughter is the same way. I did the same thing you said until she was like 2. She is now 12 and very independent but if she could she would sleep with me.

  6. play some kind of sport with your kid. that would make him fall asleep

  7. My dad used to give to my younger sister, or Valerian root. I have taken it occasionally. Its a natural substance and I think its like all things, in moderation, it can be helpful. But one should be careful not to abuse it.

    • You have a stronger stomach than I do! I found that it tasted like the reek of mildewed sweat socks, hurt my stomach, then made me lucid dream unpleasantly. *laugh* Natural or not, everything acts differently, yeah? My mom would give us chamomile tea, but my hubby gets sick on that. Madness, no?

      Though, if you know a way to handle valarian without the dreadful taste, that’d be neat to know.

  8. Melatonin is fine, but clearly, you need a very small dose. Its better than regular sleeping pills. Being slightly drowsy is not such a bad side effect considering the consequences of not sleeping which in the long run can mean lower immune function, hormonal imbalances and weight gain. Its good for people with erratic sleep patterns. Its also good to reduce artificial light as much as possible and keep bedrooms cool and dark. And exercise.

  9. Jonathan says:

    Melatonin just helps to fall asleep, it doesn’t really affects the depth or length of sleep.
    My 3 ½ y.o. son has never slept more than two full nights since he’s been born. We began concerned around 18 months old when he got really delayed in his motor and speech developement. We started at 20 months with behavorial therapy. We stood by the book for 2 months without real tangible improvment. We tried every natural medicine, we tried maximum dose for his weight of chloral hydrate and clonidine. It didn’t work. Now, he’s been taking Trazodone for three months, he sleeps better but still wakes up 4 to 5 times by night.

    • Michael Noll says:

      Wow, that’s a difficult situation, Jonathan. How do you handle the night waking? Does your son go back to sleep fairly quickly? I can’t imagine what your nights must be like.

      • Jonathan says:

        Yes, this is difficult. He does go back to sleep quickly, but some nights he’s just like you describe in the article. We learned to live with it and we adapt our family live to my son’s sleep problem. We have another boy 15 months younger needing attention too. So my wife doesn’t work, so she’s doing all the week nights and I’m doing the week-end. This way, only one parent is affected by the sleep deprevation. Kids go the nursery by week day, mom gets to sleep if you needs to! Our peditrician think we might be in front of a severe case of ADHD, we are waiting for a pedopsychiatric evaluation of our little boy.

        • Jonathan, it’s really impressive how you and your wife have figured out how to adapt your lives to your son’s sleep issues. I know it can’t be easy. Good luck with the evaluation. I hope you find more answers to help your son sleep better.

        • I was recently diagnosed with adult ADD. Prior to starting adderall, I rarely slept more thN three hours at a time, and I had horrible nightmares that didn’t go away when I woke up and went back to sleep. Trying to not read or look at my phone made it worse, because it removed the stimulation my mind needed to go back to sleep. Even when I was so exhausted all I could do was cry, my mind wouldn’t sleep. Adderall knocks me out, ended my nightmares, and let’s me get some nice rest. I’ve recently quit adderall due to side effects, and I’ve found that vitamin c knocks me out even better than the adderall, and I sleep so soundly that I tend to wake up not knowing what day it is or where I am. Vitamin c isn’t supposed to make you drowsy, but I can’t even force myself to stay awake after taking it – it’s stronger than Benadryl. I wake up with no drowsiness or other side effects (once I’m awake enough to know where I am). It might be beneficial to talk to your son’s doctor about vitamin c.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I have had insomnia my whole life, ever since I can remember. I have tried everything except drugging myself. I feel less alone to know there are others who suffer thru it, even if you are talking about it being your kids- I was ice an insomniac kid, and now I’m an insomniac adult.
    This really affects ppl and needs to be taken seriously. Ppl are supposed to sleep nightly. This is ‘normal’
    Behaviour. A normal I have never known. I stay up late and wake early- if I fall to sleep early, I wake after a cpl hours. Hear a noise? Wake up, too warm? Wake up. Too cold/too hungry/too irritated/too sick/too sleepy too bored, doesn’t matter.
    Yes’ I can get so tired that I cannot sleep. Too tired to sleep???
    Please explain this to me.
    Good luck to all. I hope u have more success than I have had with this lifetime condition that I can’t really get any docs to take too seriously. My last doc said ‘ when u get tired enough, u will sleep’
    Ha. Still waiting.

  11. Have you tried acupuncture?

  12. Hi.
    i have never replied to one of these before. I absolutely do not judge your choice, we have been there ourselves. at my second kiddos 2 yr well child check, i mentioned that he had not slept ONCE through the night, not ever! I didn’t expect much, my first did not sleep well either. She suggested a routine blood test to check for IRON DEFICIENCY which can affect sleep. I was certain that he was not iron deficient, he was a great eater and this included a lot of iron rich foods but i was desperate for sleep and so I was willing to do a blood draw on my 2 y/o. Well, what do ya know, he was in fact deficient. We began a non-constipating, over the counter, fair tasting liquid iron supplement and BAM, sleep improved. i write this because their may be an underlying condition for a child’s impaired sleep and a condition that is EASY to diagnose and treat. I think it is unfortunate that your doctor did not mention this (and maybe he did and it just wasn’t mentioned in your story). again, i do not fault/judge for giving benadryl or melatonin, but it is upsetting that some of our doctors would go this route first? i’m glad you all are sleeping better!

  13. THEY NO NEED DRUGS. THEY NEED LOVE!

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