Do your children sleep through the night? Mine didn’t. In the seven years after my first child was born I don’t think I ever got a full night sleep.
My son was born eight weeks premature. We were thankful that he only had to spend eight days in the NICU. Still, as many preemies do, he had multiple issues that made his upbringing different that the average “normal” child. Sleep, or his inability to, was one of the first and most persistent we encountered.
For the first three years of AJ’s life, we lived with my mother. She had a large house with plenty of room for all of us. Letting him cry and scream for half the night wasn’t an issue, except for the fact that no one was getting any sleep.
This was affecting his performance in preschool as he was always falling asleep. They recommended that AJ be put on medication to help him fall asleep. At his pediatrician’s suggestion we tried melatonin because we were told it was a substance that was produced naturally by the body. AJ’s body probably just wasn’t producing enough. After several weeks on melatonin there was no change at all in his sleep patterns.
His psychiatrist recommended something stronger, a prescription drug. We resisted this. We were good parents, after all, and would never needlessly medicate our child. We were horrified at the thought. Medication was something you took to treat health problems, not behavioral problems. We decided to go the behavioral route.
We consulted with his pediatrician about this and he told us to let AJ cry himself to sleep. Easier said than done, by a long shot.
Halfway through his first year of preschool we moved into a basement apartment. Upstairs lived an obnoxious family; mother, father, annoying ten-ish year old boy. Think the Dursleys from Harry Potter, both in temperament and appearances.
Every evening, just around AJ’s bedtime, they began a strange ritual shrouded in mystery. We called it Inbred Ozark Clog Dancing because it sounded exactly like they all happily put on their best Dutch wooden clogs and started step dancing on the tile floor of their kitchen. Unlike professional dancers however, there was no discernable rhythm to their steps, no method to their madness, just a cacophonous din that sounded a lot like someone rolling bowling balls down a very, very long stairway. An endless stream of bowling balls bouncing randomly down an endless stairway right above our heads.
When we would go upstairs and knock on their door and politely ask them to do whatever it was they were doing a little be quitter, they would apologize and then five minutes after we got back to our apartment, they would start up again. Louder.
The landlord was notified. Warnings were given. The Inbred Ozark Clog Dancing would stop for a few days and then start back up again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Finally, the landlord gave them an ultimatum: stop whatever the fuck it was that they were doing or find another place to live.
As you can imagine, trying to get a two year old child to sleep while maniacal clog dancing mutants rolled an infinite supply of blowing balls down an endless flight of stairs is basically impossible. We were so relieved when they finally stopped. We could now try the let-him-cry-himself-to-sleep technique.
The very first night we tried, he cried and screamed for a good 45 minutes before there was a knock at our door. It was the clan from Deliverance inquiring with faux concern if there was anything wrong with our son. They knew AJ was “special”, as they put it. We explained the situation and the doctor’s recommendation. They slunk back upstairs. Thirty minutes later, the police showed up.
There were three officers. One took me aside, another separately talked to my wife, and the last spoke to our son. I guess our stories matched up. After twenty minutes, they left, but not before warning us that we would be getting a visit from Child Protective Services.
The next morning we called AJ’s pediatrician explaining what had happened and asking him to write a letter saying that AJ was on the autism spectrum and that he could yell, scream, and otherwise act out, especially at bedtime. When CPS showed up later than day, we handed them the letter. After a call to our pediatrician and AJ’s therapist both of who verified that AJ was in fact ASD, they left us alone.
As for the clog dancing Dursleys, they immediately resumed their maddening ritual while AJ continued to scream and cry until we would let him fall asleep watching TV until 1:00 AM.
We finally agreed to follow the psychiatrist’s recommendation and put our son on clonidine. The effect was immediate and profound. The first night we gave it to him, he was fast asleep within thirty minutes. He got the first full night sleep of his life. We were literally in tears, so grateful that he was finally able to fall asleep without screaming for hours.
We also felt terrible that we had not listened to the psychiatrist and put him on medication earlier. We hadn’t done him or ourselves any favors. Like most people at the time (and today as well), we thought of mental health issues as behavioral problems, not health problems. We finally understood what AJ’s psychiatrist and therapist had meant when they told us that AJ’s issues were just as much a health issue as diabetes or thyroid problems. They needed to be treated medically just the same as well. Just because it is the brain that is affected didn’t make AJ’s problems any less of a health issue.
The proof was in the pudding. After a week or so of full night sleeping, AJ was alert in preschool and his academic progress was stunning. Just as importantly, he started to smile more, to laugh a lot, to give us more hugs and kisses than we could ever hope for. He might not still have been “normal”, but he was a much happier kid than we’d ever known before.
Featured image by Hammonton Photography