We called it ‘’the crying hour’’. In reality it was usually two or three hours. Every night from about 8pm until 11pm, my baby would scream his little teenie tiny face off. We would do anything and everything to soothe him. We tried walking him, strollering him, dancing. We went for car rides and played all sorts of music. Dark house, light house. Inside outside. Warm air cool air. Bottle, no bottle. We tried swaddling, diaper only, skin to skin. Nothing worked. We tried putting him down and letting him ‘’cry it out’’, he would cry even harder until he vomited. What I am describing is not an episode we went through in the two year old phase. This was my sons sleep routine from the very beginning.
Often it was my husband Eric who took the crying hour shifts. I could not bare it. I would start strong, swishing and whispering loving words into his ear. Humming and snuggling…but after an hour I would be begging my baby to stop, I would find myself sobbing and apologising to him for not knowing what to do or how to help. I felt there was something he needed that I could not give him and it tormented me. My husband would step in and take over. Humming a low consistent hum until Trystan fell asleep from exhaustion. For that team work, I am eternally grateful.
My son did indeed need something I couldn’t provide. More melatonin! LOL
Trystan had-has insomnia. More accurately ‘’delayed sleep onset insomnia’’. We didn’t understand it as insomnia until he was about 7, because he was our first child, and honestly I didn’t know babies could have any kind of insomnia. It’s not something you really hear about. When you talk about it people often think it’s an exaggeration or a short term things. They start talking about warm milk and hot baths. THIS – this is something bigger than that.
Mercifully, as Trystan got older the screaming fits stopped. He would just lay awake for hours and hours. Sometimes he would cry softly ‘’Mommy, I’m so tired but I can not fall asleep’’. People tell you not to lay with your children. They say they need to learn to self soothe. I get that. But when your 2 or 4 or 5 year old asks you to keep them company, because they are lonely and tired and their eyes will not shut. You do it. At least I did. Because I didn’t believe this was a ‘’self soothing’’ problem.
It would be impossible for me to count and detail the thousands of hours and hundreds of things we tried over the years to help Trystan. We tried everything – and then tried again and again. Diet changes, herbal supplements, teas and tinctures. There were some things that seemed to help a little. He occasionally fell asleep a little sooner. Then he started having fully sleepless nights. Or waking at 3 am and not getting back to sleep. He began developing restless leg syndrome which made everything more difficult and uncomfortable. He needed help. WE needed help.
Like most parents we wanted to avoid pharmaceuticals, but in the end the need for sleep (for ALL of us) became too powerful and we had to try. We started with melatonin, which is a hormone supplement. The same hormone we all produce naturally to promote sleep. It helped, but for various reasons it became less effective and eventually we found ourselves at the maximum dose but T man was still taking several hours to fall asleep. We were not comfortable with this because he is young and the long term effects of melatonin are not well known. We also felt that he needed to be able to do evening activities but were handcuffed to an early bedtime in order to get him to sleep at a decent time.
Working with our pediatrician we began exploring options. Clonidine is a blood pressure medication but off label uses include calming restless leg and aiding sleep. We agreed to try it. Trystan now takes a small dose of clonidine 2 hours before bed and a small dose of melatonin about an hour before he wants to sleep, every night. In combination with rigid sleep hygiene and routine – it helps. It is not perfect – but it helps.
Trystan still has a night or two pretty much every week in which he wakes and can not fall back to sleep. We continue to seek help and hope to get him to a children’s sleep clinic. In the meantime we have had to inform his teachers of his sleep issue so that they will not mistake his exhaustion for disinterest or laziness. Occasionally we have to let him sleep in, or give him a rest day at home. But despite pretty much constant fatigue – he goes to school most days happily. He works hard, he is motivated to learn. He is a happy, kind and affectionate little dude. He has issues with concentration (who wouldn’t?), he can get a little irritable – but mostly he is just awesome. He amazes me.
There are a few things we have learned along that way that I think are valuable and I want to share them in hopes that it may benefit other families with sleepless kids.
- ROUTINE matters! The body becomes familiar with the cycles we keep. The more consistent you can be, the more prepared the body and mind will be and the easier to descend into sleep.
- SCREENS matter! Set aside what you think or want to believe – if you or your child struggle with sleep you need to ditch the screens at least 2 hours before bed. We occasionally allow for some flex to enjoy a family movie night – but otherwise this is non-negotiable in our house because of the obvious impact it has on sleep. If you can go without false light for a few days DO IT! Camping or cottaging trips often lead to a few extra hours of sleep.
- EXERCISE AND FRESH AIR matter! For us all! But especially for those who have sleep issues. Try not to be active right before bed because that can actually make it harder to sleep. But after school and during the day. GET OUT AND GO!
- REST matters! We stopped saying ‘’go to sleep’’ a long time ago. It was stupid – he was not trying to stay awake. We also stopped counting how many hours of sleep and talking about his sleep where we could avoid it. Instead we focus on rest. ‘’It’s ok if you are not sleeping – just rest, be calm. Let your body have some time’’. This removed a lot of stress from all of us – including Trystan. I think the reason he copes as well as he does is because he does not lay in bed thinking ‘’I need to get to sleep’’. He just daydreams, or listens to soft music, or his audiobook. It is restful time even if imperfect.
- TOOLS matter! Audio books, essential oils, massage, meditation, breathwork, story time, bubble baths. Explore, Explore, Explore. Keep going until you find things that soothe and calm. Lavender helps Trystan immensely. I say that with conviction. We have consistently noticed that diffusing lavender shortens his routine by 15-20 minutes. Sometimes he will ask for it to be rubbed on his back – or legs – or feet. He has a sense for what he needs and we honour that. He also found a specific voice actor who’s voice he finds very soothing, and some stories that he feels give him better dreams. So those are staples.
- YOUR CHILD’S INTUITION and OPINIONS matter! Not all parents or professionals would agree with our strategies. I’m ok with that. I firmly believe that what we have done with Trystan is important. We have included him – even at 7 years old. He has been involved In the conversations and decisions about what to try. He knows his medications. He knows what they are for and how much he takes. He goes with me and picks them up at the pharmacy. He know how to check the label and takes his medications independently. Our policy is ‘’nothing about me without me’’. There have been a few times he asked to try skipping his meds – so we did. There have been times when he asked for a little more melatonin – so we tried it (within the dose range of course). Some nights he asks to keep his stories on, other nights he wants to see how it goes without. Some days he wants to lay alone and day dream – other days he asks for company. Lavender on, lavender off, pyjamas, no pyjamas. Trystan is learning how to self reflect, to regulate and respond to his needs. He is in charge of his sleep journey. I think THAT in the long game is far more valuable than anything else we can offer. I think that is what true self soothing is.
I am saddened sometimes that my little boy has to struggle over something that is so critical and for most kids so simple. But we try to take it in stride. We try to build an attitude of acceptance. We all have something we need to find our way through in life. We are best to use our energy to figure it out rather than fret or complain or fall into the trap of self pity. I think this in another gift. Learning this early will serve him well. Life is not easy after all….
I share this story with a sense of pride. It feels good to give Trystan a little public credit for his patience, persistence and resilience. He is really a strong kid. Mostly though I am writing this because I would have loved to find someone elses story a few years ago. I would have been so relieved to know we were not alone. It would have been such a comfort back when I felt that I had somehow fundamentally ruined my child’s sleep routine by holding him too much, or too little, or whatever. I share our stories because I want to support other families. I can not promise OUR solutions will be the same as what others need. I can only say…
It’s ok! You are not alone.
It’s not your fault. Don’t fret.
Rest when you can, sleep will come.
You will find your way too!