Catching ZZZs

24 Nov

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…

Melatonin Supplementation

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!

Massage Therapy

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:


16 Responses to “Catching ZZZs”

  1. Kara November 24, 2010 at 10:11 am #

    It is amazing how close to home your topics hit. We have been dealing with sleepless nights since our sons birth nine years ago. In fact, his doctor prescribed Ambien five weeks ago in hopes that more sleep would help him have better days at school. Some nights it works…some it doesn’t. I will definitely be talking to him about Melatonin. Thank you so much for the time and energy you put into your blog!

  2. Charlene November 24, 2010 at 1:16 pm #

    Joanne I love your stories… They really make me think. I am so interested in them…
    Keep up the writing.. Your doing a great job with Gregory!!!!

    Charlene and Mike

  3. bet365 November 29, 2010 at 12:21 pm #

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  4. bet365 December 1, 2010 at 3:50 pm #

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  5. Brenda January 23, 2011 at 3:59 am #

    Joanne, I am a mom of a 7 year old boy with AS and I could use some good advice and someone to talk to if you have sometime. I have a school meeting on tuesday and wow I am nervous. Please email me when you get a moment that would be great…Thanks so much….

    • Joanne Houldsworth January 23, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

      Hi Brenda – I’d be happy to help, if I can. I sent you an email directly with my address. Feel free to contact me. And good luck! Joanne

  6. Lynn Munger February 1, 2011 at 7:44 pm #

    Ah! I felt kinship with you immediately concerning the sleep/melatonin issue! My son is 3 yrs old and has classic autism. Before using melatonin, he would sleep maybe 2-4 hrs per night, and I was getting less than that! Talk about Medusa, boy I felt almost like I wrote this piece 🙂 We have been using melatonin since Hayden was 19 months old – with no side effects. If he doesn’t have it, he doesn’t go to sleep. No matter how tired he is. (I also tried a few different times to discontinue it to see the results) I learned about melatonin from a mom in my autism support group… our pediatrician never mentioned it although other (prescription) medications were suggested.

    • Joanne Houldsworth February 2, 2011 at 10:46 pm #

      Thanks for the comment, Lynn. It is amazing that the pediatrician would look to use prescription drugs before trying a natural remedy, but I guess that’s Western medicine for you…. Good luck with your journey! Your fellow Medusa 🙂

  7. Ersht Is Ersht April 27, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

    I have had the same experience, and even got diagnosed with Circadian Rhythm Disorder earlier this year. My sleep has gotten worse in some ways since my childhood days, starting to become problematic in middle school.

    I got the tip on melatonin from people on Wrong Planet, and started experimenting with different doses while working with a sleep doctor to pin down what exactly was going on. What seems to work best for me is to take melatonin in a similar manner as to how your body produces it (in theory, if we lack it):

    .3 mg at 7:00 (or about 2-4 hours before I want to go to bed)
    .6 mg at 8:00
    1 mg at 9:00
    3 mg at 10:00
    6 mg (maybe) if I’m still up at midnight (or 2 hours past my last 3 mg dose).

    I’ve managed to get my sleep managed to the point that I can get up at a fairly early hour with much trouble now. For a good chunk of my life, it was just a matter of time before I hit a stretch where my sleep cycle would flip, causing me to miss work (or be late by 1 hour or more) everyday for long enough to get fired. I thank God for those people in the Wrong Planet chat that night who made that suggestion!

    • Joanne Houldsworth April 28, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

      Thanks for the info, Ersht…I’m glad Melatonin has worked for you. Hopefully it will help some others too!

  8. michelle July 17, 2011 at 10:46 pm #

    Unlike most parents of Aspergers, I have a girl and she sleeps like a log. I’m so blessed that she is very routine in her sleep and eating patterns. She is the least picky of all my kids and she sleeps amazingly. However, I have a son who I’m not sure if he has Aspergers as he is not quite 5 yet and he actually just fell asleep although I know he was tired like 2 hours ago. It takes him forever. He is the pickiest of all my children too as far as eating goes. He has sensory processing disorder. They probably would diagnose him with ADHD too. He’s so hyper which is a sign of SPD. We use brushing to calm him down too. Have you ever tried that? You just buy a therapeutic bristle brush and then sing a song as you brush their arms, back, and legs (no stomache or chest area as this can cause problems). Then we do “bump bumps” where we apply pressure at the joints. So we just move the joints or “bump” them up and down 10 times at each joint. We do this throughout the day, but esp. at night. I am not sure if it helps yet. I haven’t tried the melatonin. Do they make that for young children? What if a child can’t swallow pills? I’m so interested in this now and would love to learn more.

    • Joanne Houldsworth July 18, 2011 at 7:47 am #

      Hi Michelle – Yes, they DO make melatonin in a liquid dropper form for those that have trouble with pills. My research and pediatrician said it was perfectly safe to give children up to 3 mg of melatonin, although I have only needed two at the most, so far. Regarding your suggestions, yes we have tried the ‘bumping’, but have not tried the brushing. Things seem under control right now, but it because problematic again, I’ll experiment with the brushing.
      Thanks for the feedback and good luck on your journey!


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