Sleep Issues

Sleep is something that we all take for granted, as long as we are getting it. If we don’t get enough sleep, we are cranky, sleepy, quick to anger and plain grouchy. But, we have a solution: Caffeine. Or at least that is my solution.

Our kids are in the same boat: as difficult as it is for them to regulate themselves, can you imagine how they do it when they don’t have enough sleep? And they can’t drink coffee. It must be like medieval torture for them.

I recently talked with a fellow parent, who has a baby that has already been identified as having SPD (Yay! Early Intervention Rocks!) and is struggling with getting the baby to sleep, let alone sleep through the night. During our conversation, I was immediately reminded of all of my own kids’ sleep issues and how far we’ve come. Proof, yet again, that things do get better with time.

Let’s run down my 3 sleep-challenged-kiddos.

It only seems fitting that Gabe is first.

From the time Gabe was placed with us at just over 13 months, he was attached to his bottle. But only when he was tired; I gave him a morning bottle and nighttime bottle. I quickly realized he wanted the bottle to sleep with, and that it gave him the soothing he needed to fall asleep and more importantly stay asleep. It was like magic; stick bottle into his mouth, he is asleep. Remove bottle from mouth, he is awake. He was so small, and young, and Jeff and I figured, “If all he has in life to feel safe is a bottle, who are we to take it from him?” So, against our better "know it all" judgement, we put him to sleep with a bottle of water nightly. We let him have his bed-time-water-bottle in his crib from the time he was a year until … about 2 years when I put an abrupt halt on it.

Why the abrupt halt? Well, he was my first child, and since I didn’t have him as an infant, I was completely sure that taking the bottle from him was the "right thing to do". I mean, I'd read the books, and by the time he was almost two, I was trying to adopt him. Which meant to me at the time, "righting the wrongs" his birth mother had done, including the bottle in bed issue.

But, that dedication to my preconceived notions isn't what put me over the edge. No it was Gabriel's relentless need for water ALL NIGHT LONG.

He would wake up multiple times a night due to him peeing through his pajamas and bedding. When I would enter his room to help, he would throw his empty bottle at me, which just irritated me, especially since I then had to change his pajamas and bedding all while dealing with him screaming and crying in his between awake and asleep state. It was annoying at best.

We didn’t have a diagnosis at the time, so that led me in my omniscient ways to try the “Ferberize” method. Big joke.

Although this didn’t go nearly as badly as you’d think, what I realize in retrospect was that I hadn’t weaned him from the bottle, I had just forced him to find something else for oral input: enter the infamous Hippo Blanket.

Gabriel, now almost 9, STILL CHEWS on his Hippo Blanket to put himself to sleep.

When he was 2, in my utter genius, I failed to realize that he hadn’t stopped SUCKING on something to soothe himself, he had just changed from bottle to blanket because there wasn’t anything else in his crib and he NEEDED something. What I learned from that was that Gabriel NEEDS something in his mouth to self soothe. This need doesn’t fall under “will grow out of it”, we are talking about the way his neurons are wired.

It wasn’t until Gabriel was 3.5 that we started to really worry about his sleeping. He would come home from preschool, and nap for up to 4 hours, and still go to bed on time and sleep another 10. That sounds amazing to all of you who didn’t get a “natural born sleeper”, but we had other issues.

Gabriel would scream, upon waking from nap or in the morning, for at least 45 minutes. If I intervened, touched him, talked to him, moved him, forced him to get up, anything, the crying and screaming could last up to 2+ hours.

And the exact same issue would come on right after dinner time when he was getting tired.
The reality was that he couldn’t handle the transition from awake to asleep, or asleep to awake. This made for a level of stress that I could barely handle.

We went in for a sleep study, and actually made it through the entire process right up to the actual test when we backed out.

We had two reasons for backing out: 1. I was pregnant with Matthew and Gabriel wanted ME to stay the night with him, and I couldn’t imagine not being the one there, which was virtually impossible being nearly 9 months pregnant, and 2. The crying had lessened substantially—virtually disappeared overnight—when Gabriel started anti-anxiety meds. No comments from the peanut gallery on whether or not to give meds. For us, medication is a necessity that stems from his genetics (Bipolar birth mother) and was exacerbated by abuse and neglect.

Gabriel has used a heavy blanket (and so has Matthew on a few nights) to go to sleep in the past as well. I have found that the heavy blanket is a great tool for putting Gabe to sleep, but not one for keeping him asleep--he wakes up because it is too hot. When he is flipping out, I will often mandate that he has 20 minutes under the heavy blanket, in a dimly lit room. It puts him to sleep. Instantly.

Today Gabriel is a great sleeper, but we still fight the challenges from asleep to awake. He goes to sleep easily, but nightly can be heard yelling and screaming, complains of nightmares, and overall needs more sleep than the average bear. Every morning, I cringe to have to wake him, (mind you he sleeps at a minimum 11 hours a night, but on weekends, at nearly 9 years old, still can nap), because instead of crying like a 3 year old, he yells at me like a teenager. No fun. For either of us.

OK, next up is Nicholas.

Nick didn’t sleep as a baby. He didn’t sleep in the hospital, he didn’t sleep in the bassinet, he didn’t sleep in the crib, he pretty much didn’t sleep.

From the time he was born all he really wanted to do was eat—but that’s another post entirely. LOL

Nick would sleep in his infant car seat (especially if my husband swung it like a rocking chair), and he would sleep in his bouncer. Those were his two main beds up until he was 8 months old. My mom used to joke that once he was a toddler we were going to have to buy him a mini lazy boy because he was so used to sleeping upright. Given that he ended up sleeping in my bed after he out grew the infant carrier (by 5 months he was over 20lbs. and the car seat was used exclusively as a bed, not a car seat), the lazy boy might have been preferable.

From 8 months until about 14 months Nick slept with Jeff and me. Co-sleeping isn’t so much of a problem for me, but the challenge was I was pregnant then. I am sure there are hundreds if not thousands (all of whom probably read my blog, right? LOL) who had no problem co-sleeping with a toddler, while checking on a preschool and being pregnant at the same time. But, I am not one of them.

I was exhausted at the end of the day and all I really wanted was sleep. Pure, uninterrupted, sweet sleep. In my experience, this is rarely attainable with a child in your bed.

So we put Nick in a full sized bed in his room. With rails. And helped him to learn to sleep there. Of course this is no easy task. It involves me, lying with him, multiple times a night, after I had to return him to his own bed after he crawled in mine.

He didn’t sleep through the night until he as 2.5 and stopped napping. Thank god. At that point, Matthew had arrived.

Last but not least, Matthew

Matthew was a born sleeper. Really. As long as he was swaddled. And had a pacifier. But other than that, easy.

We swaddled him, in layers of blankets, with a Velcro sealed top layer every night, sometimes MULTIPLE times a night, until he was 8 months old. I actually took photos of him the first time he napped un-swaddled because I was so excited!

Around 6 months Matt was diagnosed with acid reflux, which medicine worked wonders for. He also loved his pacifier, which I was reluctant to take from him when he turned two, even though family and friends suggested--strongly--that I do. He ended up loosing all of his pacifiers, really, at about 2 and 3 months. But, he adjusted fine. Another example of how my "fear" of how my kids will transition is worse than the reality.

Matthew slept well, on and off, with normal kiddo issues until about age 3 when he was officially in a big boy bed. We went through the expected dose of putting him back in bed, since he could now officially get out, for about six months. Our high was around 37 times when I stopped counting.

Now in all seriousness, Matt was the easiest. That said, he is still the baby and is found once a week in our bed in the middle of the night at age 4. You can't win 'em all.

With all of this in mind, here are some tips you should try to get a better night sleep for you, and of course, your kid too!

Routine: You need to have an established routine, that begins at least 45 minutes before you want your kids in bed. Bath, teeth, medicine, 3 books, read in Matt’s room, boys to their beds, lights out five minutes later, is ours. We stick to it. Like glue.

No TV: To establish your routine, remove TV from what you are doing. It just isn’t a night time activity. Add it in when your kids have already established a good sleep routine. We can successfully watch TV with our kids for about 30 minutes after bath, but before the rest of routine. We can't skip the books or Matthew looses his mind and won't sleep for hours. He actually once told me, "It's all your fault." "What is all my fault?" I asked lying in bed with him, "I wanted you to read to me." Lovely. Hear that? If I screw up the routine, it is all my fault. No truer words have ever been spoken.

Proprioception: If your kid is wound up, running around isn’t going to “burn off the excess energy”. Get them to move furniture, use a heavy blanket, do pull ups/pushups, do “animal walks” like the crab or maybe joint compressions. The goal is to incorporate this into your night time routine (we do a lot of joint compressions/proprioception after bath while putting lotion on Gabriel’s skin).

Stick to a Bedtime: Your kids need a bedtime. My motto, with my kids on everything is, “If there isn’t a rule there can’t be an exception.” Which means they cannot stay up *most* nights, or enforcing the bedtime becomes the exception. You want the opposite. My kids get to stay up on Friday nights for Family Movie Night (which is popcorn and a movie in my bed on the “good TV”— the TV downstairs is older than dirt and a tube version, so they don’t damage it, more than they already have), but 25 out of 30 days they go to bed on time.

More Sleep: Your kids need more sleep than you think. I can tell you how many hours each of mine needs: Gabriel 11-12, Nick 9.5-10, Matt 10. If your kids are not getting the sleep they need, or they are fired up at bedtime, put them to bed EARLIER. Really. Chances are that they are OVER-tired. Overtired kids get up in the night, have night terrors, are more restless and harder to get to sleep.

Sleep Regular Hours: I know many families who are successful with putting their kids to bed at 10 or 11 at night, because they “sleep in”, but I think that is unusual. Put your kid to bed between 7:30 and 9:00pm. That way, if they get the 10 hours they probably need, they are awake at 7pm. If you need to be up earlier, then adjust. But, I would much prefer Gabe be awake at 7 and ready to go (I can deal with coming up with “waiting games”) then drag his butt out of bed bitchin’ and moanin’ at 8. We start routine around 7pm. They can play in the bath (this was a collaborative problem solving nightmare that we finally gave into—they like to have leisurely bathes), or shower, and then even have some quiet play time in their rooms if necessary while Matt finishes. Then to teeth, meds, and book reading by 8, so that we are done and lights out by 8:30pm. I still drag Gabe out of bed at 8am most days. I wish I could get him to bed earlier, but the other two don’t need that much sleep, making it hard to convince Gabe to go to bed when he is the only one going to sleep.
There really is no magic solution to bedtime. No matter how many books you read.

I try to just make the best decisions I can, not just the "easy short term" ones, and keep moving forward.

But that's easy for me to say, becuase I am well rested.

Photo: That is Gabriel at about 2.5 just after Nick was born. He is sleeping with his Hippo Blanket. Note that he still sleeps like this: on top of the covers with just his Hippo Blanket.


Chynna said...

Great minds think alike, Hartley! I just posted something about sleep over at "The Gift" blog too! =D HA!

Great advice, by the way. Sleep is something we don't get much of around here...still.


Em Ybarra said...

thank you for this post! my son Cruise has always been a good sleeper...until a month ago when we moved him from his crib to a twin bed. now we have to hold his hand in order for him to fall asleep, he has to be in non-fuzzy jammies, and he must sleep with layers and layers of blankets. He wakes up in the middle of the night crying and runs to our room, but we try to get him back into his bed. I've ordered a lycra sheet for his bed that hopefully will help him stay asleep, but you've also given me a few good ideas that i'll have to try! thanks!!!

Kath said...

Oh. My. Goodness.

Gabe and my oldest (9 yrs old) have done, and still do, The Exact Same Things. Absolutely uncanny.

My youngest (now 6 yrs) started sleeping the night at SIX WEEKS! (such a blessing!) but made up for that with only one daily micro-nap (20 min-1 hour) as an infant until he quit naps entirely at about 20 months. Even when he clearly needed a nap, he flat-out refused through force of pure willpower, until occasionally his brain shut down for him. Stubborn, cranky boy.

Thanks for confirming yet again that we are not alone!!


Anonymous said...

Reinforcing the proprioception idea and adding that 'heavy work' during the day can help children sleep better. I posted on that yesterday. Barbara

Jen said...

We have the same issues with transtions of sleep to wake. The worst is after naps and at 3 1/2 I know Hadley can't give up her nap. She needs it. I need her to need it! However, it is also a 20-45 min or more battle EVERY DAY transitioning out of nap. We have an after nap routine but it doesn't stop the meltdown. I'd love to hear how you have or do handle this with G!

Hartley said...

Jen, I definitely don't have a magic answer here. This is my best advice:

1. Let her wake naturally
2. Use natural light when waking her (open the blinds)
3. Give lots of verbal warnings
4. Stay out of her way--don't force getting up (picking her up or trying to get her to open her eyes).

I do take Gabe's blanket off of him (which he promptly puts back on him), rub his back and remind him of anything exciting for the day (remember, you have PE today!) to encourage him to wake, but honsetly, if I were you, I'd try and get rid of the nap on a daily basis. It sounds scary, but trust me, it might work better. Life certainly got better for us when Gabe didn't nap daily.

Gosh, I hope some of that helps, but if you have any good tips, PLEASE share! Trust me, I know how hard it is on you. :)


Anonymous said...

Wow, three boys with three different sleeping styles. You are pretty amazing!

Crystal said...

I am so sorry! I just realized that you commented on my blog. The blog about SPD that I mentioned on my site is

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree!

My 5 YO has extreme sleep needs. she needs 12 hours+ per night, but will automatically wake between 6:30 and 7am. For us, that means putting our kiddos (age 5 and 2) to bed at 6:30pm. It takes a LOT to protect that bedtime routine. It means being home from any activities by 4:30pm so we can have dinner at 5pm, so we have enough time for the bedtime routine (leisurely bath, family devotional, vitamins, brush teeth, water cups, potty and bed).

I REGULARLY get criticized for turning down ALL evening activities and having to leave early. People just don't understand that I have to be exceptionally choosy about the occasions for which I'll make an exception because those exceptions will affect our family for 2-3 DAYS with over-tired, over-sensitive, SPD ruling the household kids and thus its gotta be *REALLY* worth it to allow the kids to stay up late (i.e. staying at Disneyland late for her birthday visit, or Christmas).