Being a kindergarten teacher while pregnant gave me an extra eye into the window of new parenthood. I’d see the mothers of my students come in at the end of their pregnancies with swollen bellies and tired smiles until, one day, they’d be replaced by proud dads.
It would often be weeks after the new babies were born that I’d finally see the mothers again. They’d come into the classroom with sleeping infants dangling from car seats in one arm and restless kindergartners tugging at the other.
I’d overhear their conversations about exhaustion and sleep training and I’d smile and nod and imagine how, very soon, the sweet fetus that was growing in my belly would, with my gentle guidance, learn to sleep like an angel in his crib.
That’s not exactly how it turned out. My son was born with his head tilted towards the sky and his eyes wide open and that’s exactly how he’s stayed. Those first few weeks/months/years were a nightmare of sleep deprivation. The only way I could get him to sleep at all was on top of me, and even then it was only in short bursts and mostly in the daytime. Turns out I didn’t have the stomach for the hardcore sleep training that many of my friends found so effective, partly because the second I left him alone, he’d scream so loudly the upstairs neighbors would bang on the floor.
For the first year of his life, I was lucky to get three or four hours of very interrupted sleep. I was so tired that I didn’t even feel safe to drive for fear of falling asleep. Much of those first few months were spent huddled on the couch in a zombie-like daze while my son rummaged through the apartment dumping out bags of flour and pulling down curtains.
It wasn’t until he was almost 4 that he began (mostly) sleeping through the night. Unfortunately, nighttime to him ended promptly at 4 a.m. Many times I’d be so desperate for sleep, I’d clip him into his car seat when he got up in the “morning” and drive around until he fell back asleep. Then, I’d pull over into a grocery store parking lot and catch a quick snooze myself.
All of my grand “rainbows and unicorn” expectations of motherhood were reduced to just one dream: getting this kid to sleep like “other people’s babies.”
Because “other people’s babies” were sleeping at this point. I knew this from phone conversations with old friends and the few rare conversations I had with neighborhood moms. It got to the point where I was embarrassed to mention that sleep was still an issue at our house. I began blaming myself for going the attachment parenting route instead of letting him cry it out or stopping breastfeeding earlier.
The thing that I was missing was that my son was not like “other people’s babies” in more ways than just sleep. He was walking and talking months before any other baby that we knew. While other kids were playing with trucks and dolls, he was begging me for worksheets and books. When he was 4, I took him to the local elementary school with some samples of his work and they told me that he would need to skip kindergarten in order to get an appropriate education.
My son turned 12 this year. Many things about him have changed. He no longer needs me to be right by his side; he’d rather play video games or hang out with his friends than do worksheets; and he hasn’t dumped flour all over the floor in months.
But, sleep—sleep is still an issue.
Most nights he lies in bed working on his Rubik’s Cube or reading until his eyes close at around 9. He still wakes up before 6 most days, but he’s old enough now to keep himself occupied until I wake up.
But some nights, some nights… he is back to that anxious toddler, tossing and turning and tugging at his bedsheets until they twist into a jumbled heap. On those nights, I sit with him, rubbing his back or just hugging him until he calms down. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t. On his worst nights he’ll stay up until 3, then falling into a few hours of restless sleep. Several times, I’ve kept him home from school because he just didn’t get enough sleep to be able to handle it.
Although I can’t predict when he’ll have one of those nights, there are certain things that make them more likely. An upcoming test, lost library books, or baseball try-outs are all things that can trigger him. It is almost impossible for him to fall asleep if he’s not at home, if there’s a friend in the house, or if my husband or I aren’t here to tuck him in. This means no sleepovers, either at our house or at friends’, difficult vacations, and no overnight trips for my husband and I.
It’s hard to know what exactly is causing his insomnia, but research has shown that gifted kids are more prone to sleep disorders. I’ve consulted with our family doctor who has suggested meditation tapes, relaxation techniques, and even melatonin supplements with him. Nothing seems to make any difference.
Although the insomnia bouts have remained intense, they do seem to have gotten less frequent in recent years. On the most difficult nights we sometimes fall asleep together, crying tears of frustration and exhaustion.
I’d like to believe that this is a passing phase that will disappear during adolescence, but I suspect that it’s more complicated than that. With an active mind often comes additional anxieties and stress. My hope is that, in time, he learns to find coping mechanisms to lessen the sleepless nights.
In the meantime, I’ll try to appreciate those long nights as the few times he still seeks out my arms for comfort.