I don’t know about you, but I am an absolute bear if I don’t get enough sleep, or even worse – if my sleep is interrupted – Beware! My husband learned this the hard way early on in our relationship, when I lashed out at him like some evil, snaked-tressed Medusa after he woke me up one too many times during a long, late-night car ride to Washington, DC. I shall never forget the look of astonishment, fear and horror on his face as he witnessed his beloved turn into a raging lunatic in the night. (As we were still just dating at that point, I’m surprised our couple-hood lived to see the light of day! It is truly a testament to his equanimity…)
It’s no surprise really…We are bombarded daily with articles and news reports about how vital sleep is for mood, as well as for health, learning and development. So, we all agree that sleep is a great thing, but still many of us are unable to achieve that minimum daily requirement of zzz’s. And children are no exception.
Right from birth, my son Gregory had difficulty settling himself. Whereas his older brother Daniel had slept for four hour stretches his very first day home from the hospital, as a newborn Gregory woke up and needed to be cuddled, soothed and/or fed every hour. It was exhausting (and helped produce some repeat performances of Medusa-on-the Rampage, BTW), but eventually we got him to sleep for as much as three hours at a time.
When Greg was 2 ½, we moved him out of the nursery, into his own room and into a ‘Big Boy Bed’. (His sister Sarah was on the way and we needed the Baby’s Room for her….) Gregory loved his new room, decorated with cars and trucks, but the transition was not an easy one for him. (and in hindsight, we could have handled the change much better…live and learn….) In any case, Greg continued to have great difficulty settling down for the night. He would happily get ready for bed and eagerly pick out a book for Mom or Dad to read to him. But after being tucked in and kissed good night, he would toss and turn for hours.
When Barry and I would head to bed several hours later, Gregory was often still awake, lying in his “Big Boy Bed” muttering to himself, unable to let go of the world and fall into peaceful slumber. And when he did eventually sleep, it was anything but peaceful, fraught with restless dreams and late-night stirrings. He would awake crying frequently and I would repeatedly have to go in to settle him.
How do I know all this? Well, Gregory’s room is right next to the Master Bedroom. And that adorable red, bead-board “Big Boy Bed” that I had purchased to go with his charmingly decorated new bedroom, squeaked and creaked with – every – single – movement! No, I am not exaggerating. (Boy, did I have buyer’s remorse over that purchase!) I am a very light sleeper, and I heard Greg’s bed ‘musical’ constantly through the night – night, after night, after night…
We tried many things to try to improve his comfort and thereby hopefully his sleep. We put up side rails; we added a night-light; we surrounded him with pillows and stuffed animals; we put on sleepy ‘mood’ music; we tried a wave sound machine; we read ‘sleepy’ books to him; we even had his big brother sleep with him…All to no avail. He continued to be a very restless, problem sleeper – and time went on…
Shortly after figuring out that Gregory has Asperger’s Syndrome, I read that many people with AS suffer with these same sleep issues. Apparently, children on the spectrum typically experience circadian rhythm dysfunction and abnormally low levels of melatonin.
I began to do research and came across a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine on the use of the natural hormone melatonin to improve sleep of children with autism. This study was a 4-week rigorously scientific trial, where either 3 mg of melatonin or a placebo was given to 18 children with ASD. The study supported the efficacy of melatonin treatment for sleep problems, with minimal, if any, side effects. Now this sounded promising!
I did additional research, OK’d it with our pediatrician and then set out on my own subjective clinical trial. I decided to start with 1 mg of melatonin (as opposed to the 3 mg in the study), to try to find the minimal effective dosage. I also decided to include my older son Daniel in the test, because due to his ADHD he too, has difficulty falling to sleep. (Unlike Gregory however, Daniel sleeps like a log once he finally does fall asleep. One time a carpenter was banging away, installing crown molding right outside his bedroom, and Daniel slept right through it all….)
At bedtime, I gave both boys 1 mg of melatonin and then observed the results. On the very first night – success! Greg and Dan both fell asleep within about 20 minutes, which was a dramatic improvement. But even better, Gregory experienced a much more restful sleep. He didn’t toss and turn, or wake up nearly as often throughout the night. The next morning, both boys woke up normally, and did not show any signs of grogginess or other ill effects. I was ecstatic! Add one to the arsenal of sleep aids!
About this same time, I was speaking with a behavioral therapist who uses both music and massage therapies in working with autistic children. She showed me some basic massage techniques to help reduce stress. (For example: Press the palm of your one hand firmly against the person’s chest, while your other hand slowly and firmly slides down his back, from between the shoulders blades to the waist.) We tested it out on Gregory…He loved it! It seemed to calm and relax him, and I could actually see his shoulders dropping away from ear lobes as he de-stressed. We began using therapeutic massage anytime Gregory started getting upset or overwhelmed and it significantly helped him to regroup and manage his behavior.
Seeing how well massage worked during stressful times, I decided to try it at Greg’s bedtime as well. As part of his nightly routine, I would give him a back rub – using long strokes and firm pressure (not too hard or too light, which were both uncomfortable to him.) As I massaged, we would talk a bit about his day and what the plans were for tomorrow. Stroking his back, I would quietly ask him if he could feel all that TLC (which I had to define for him as ‘Tender Loving Care’) going from me to him. He loved it – and so did I! Best of all, it worked to improve his sleep. As the tension melted away from his body through my loving touch, Gregory was able to go to sleep and stay asleep so much easier. Add another trick to the arsenal!
Today, that bedtime massage is a well-loved ritual that we do each night – with all three of my kids! Greg will actually come and ask me for his ‘special massage’ and it has become a very special bonding time.
Although I didn’t use a scientific approach or control variables in my ‘studies’, I believe that melatonin and massage both have had very favorable results in improving Gregory’s sleep patterns. Together, they have helped him fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer, enabling him to enjoy a more restful, recuperative night.
After a few months, I stopped giving the melatonin at bedtime, to test the supplement’s true impact….and to my surprise, the benefits remained! Somehow the improved sleep patterns of the previous few months had retrained Greg’s mind/body to improve his circadian rhythm function. He had learned how to settle himself and was now relaxed enough to stay asleep. I couldn’t be happier with the results and these days, we only rely on melatonin periodically, such as during travel or when sleep eludes him for some reason. Even on an ad hoc basis, melatonin continues to work its wonders.
As a result of his improved sleep, Greg’s daytime moods and resiliency have improved dramatically too. He is less stressed and is able to cope much better with the world around him. And I’m happy to say – so am I! I too, am sleeping better and Mrs. Medusa rarely makes an appearance these days – at least not due to lack of sleep!
Here’s a link to another recent study supporting the use of melatonin for children with autism: http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/more-evidence-melatonin-eases-autism-associated-insomnia?utm_source=social-media&utm_medium=E-speaks&utm_campaign=121611