Sleep has never come easily for Ryan.
To be more precise, staying asleep has never come easily. Over the years, we have figured out a routine — melatonin, bedtime reading, white noise, soothing music, weighted blanket — that usually gets Ryan to sleep rather quickly. But he wakes easily, and frequently (although much less often since he began using the weighted blanket), and is up for good very early.
Early morning wake-ups have just become part of our family life. I like to say that I haven’t set an alarm since Ryan was born, and other than days when I need to get up at some insane hour to catch a flight, that is pretty much true. He has been consistently early to bed, early to rise, and restless in-between.
His sleep schedule is like a delicate flower that must be protected at all costs. Anything that interferes with the routine can throw him off, and when he doesn’t get enough sleep,
his all our behavior suffers. As he has gotten older, he has become a little more flexible, able to tolerate, for example, going to a night-time Devils game without turning the following day into a disaster.
But it’s the days when he can’t get to sleep that really throw all of us for a loop. So I knew we were in for a long night last night when I got home from playing hockey at 10:30 to find Veronica curled up on the corner of Ryan’s twin bed, trying to coax him to sleep. She had already been at it for a couple of hours and was beyond exhausted and frustrated.
These nights strike unpredictably, often without reason. But last night, the cause was more evident. One of Ryan’s tics, in which he pops his eardrums by holding his nose and exhaling, was the culprit. This is a habit Ryan developed over the last year and which caused many miserable nights this summer as he popped his eardrums to the point of pain. It faded seemingly on its own, and we thought perhaps it was in the past.
As I came into Ryan’s room, Veronica said “your turn,” and shuffled off to bed, just as I would have done. I took off my shoes and took her place, folding myself into the smallest shape possible around his body on the small bed. Ryan didn’t say much, other than to tell me he was trying to stop popping his ears and express anger over not being able to fall asleep. Mostly, I just listened to his breathing. I found myself counting the seconds between his movements — a trick I used when he was an infant — as a way of judging when he was asleep. After about five minutes, the record was still seven seconds, so I gave up.
Ryan sat up and told me, “I wish I had the whole bed,” so I grabbed his quilt, the one with the 30 NHL team logos, and his San Jose Sharks pillow pet, and did my best to get comfortable on the floor next to him. I resumed my vigil of listening to him breathe.
I was transported back to his infant and toddler years. How many nights had one of us spent in his room in some similar position? For his first year, I don’t think he ever went more than three hours without waking up. We tried everything. Earlier bed times. Later bed times. Altered nap schedules. Various soothing sounds. We finally hit on one device that he seemed to love.
It was called the Fisher Price Peaceful Planet Aquarium. It was a mechanical fish tank, and when turned on, the little plastic goldfish rotated around the bowl as dim lights projected on the ceiling amid the sound of crashing waves. It played for seven minutes every time you turned it on. Ryan very quickly figured out how to turn it on himself, and he got to the point that any time we heard him stir on the baby monitor, the next thing we heard was those crashing waves. Sometimes he fell back asleep during the first seven-minute cycle. Other times it took two or three, but it prevented him from crying out for us every time. I think it cost $30. I would have gladly paid $3,000.
There was just one problem with the aquarium. It ate batteries — four C-cells at a time. I bought rechargeable batteries and made sure I always had a fresh set ready to go. But like all kids toys, the battery cover required a screwdriver to open. One night, Ryan turned it on to soothe himself, but it died right away and he lost his mind. I bolted out of bed and set about trying to get the cover open to swap the batteries while he screamed at the top of his lungs and Veronica yelled at me to work faster. After that, I decided to buy a second unit, only it had been discontinued. I found one on eBay. That way we had one with charged batteries ready at all times and I could hot-swap them in a few seconds.
He eventually outgrew the aquarium when he moved to a toddler bed. I think I sold them on eBay. These days he has an iPod in a speaker dock which plays the same lullaby CD we bought when he was born. He sometimes turns it on himself if he is having trouble falling asleep.
As I lay on his floor listening to him breathe last night, I silently cursed whatever it is that prevents him from finding peaceful rest, knowing what it would do to him, and all of us, today. We both eventually fell asleep, and he managed not to wake up until well past his usual time. Of course, that only made him angry at the loss of morning free time.
He will find a way to navigate this day, as will we, but it doesn’t make it easy — or fair. Veronica has already reached out to the behavioral therapist to address the ear popping. We will get this figured out, just as we have so many other obstacles. My beautiful boy works too hard to navigate each day. He must have his rest.
What are your sleep strategies? Feel free to share in the comments.