Friday, November 14, 2008


If you've landed here because you typed words like "melatonin" and "sleep disturbance" and "autism spectrum" into your search engine, welcome.

I hope I can provide some information I would have loved to have had a couple years ago.

Here's our story of sleep:

Ben slept relatively well as a baby. But after his first birthday, he would go through periods every few weeks where for several nights in a row he would wake up around 2 a.m. and want to be held.

He would just lie in my lap, eyes wide open, for hours at a time.

And though we had successfully used the dreaded "cry it out" method to get him to go to sleep independently, I admit that I did not have the strength of character to go through this exercise at two in the morning. So I would sit with him: waiting, waiting, waiting for him to fall back asleep.

As he grew, the pattern remained: several weeks of sleeping through the night, then four or five (or more) nights of wakefulness.

At times, he would wake up in the middle of the night and ask to read books together or recite stories on his own at full volume and at middle-of-the-afternoon level of enthusiasm.

As he became more verbal and as his imaginative play skills kicked in, bedtime became his most creative and interactive time of the day.

And because he was actually asking me to play with him (gasp!), I often let him stay up way too late just because I was amazed and delighted by his emerging social antics.

But the playing he did at night sometimes had an almost frantic quality to it.

Often, he would walk in circles around a table in his room, reciting a story or making one up. It seemed as if his brain was propelling his legs, or vice versa, and that he was unable or unwilling to turn his brain off.

Eventually, much too late, he would wear himself out and fall asleep.

Desperate and exhausted, I started researching melatonin.

I had read on the Hyperlexia Parents' Network discussion group about how many families with kids on the spectrum used this natural supplement to help with sleep disturbances.

When I couldn't find anything on the internet that suggested any dangerous side effects, I ventured to the supplements aisle in Whole Foods.

Second guessing myself, I decided to ask a Whole Foods employee about it. She looked shocked. "Oh, I would NEVER give this to children. Children make enough melatonin on their own and they don't need it. You should try valerian root instead."

I slinked away, feeling like a terrible parent who was about to give my kid Valium. So I bought the valerian root. It tasted awful and had no noticeable effect.

With renewed self-confidence, I went back and bought the melatonin.

The first night we gave it to Ben, he had a meltdown on the bathroom floor shortly after he took it. I felt awful. I'm drugging my child, I thought. But something kept me from rejecting it outright.

We tried it again, off and on, for several weeks. The effects seemed to get more consistent, more gentle. I tried to compare nights with and nights without and soon a pattern emerged.

It was working.

So: now he takes one 2.5 mg tablet (orange flavored, like baby aspirin) every night after bath time or as he's putting on jammies. Then he plays in his room or reads or listens to a book on tape for no more than 30 minutes, during which time he gets gently and gradually more calm and sleepy.

Then, at some point, he just crawls into his bed - on his own. We turn out the light and - presto - he falls asleep and sleeps through the night.

But here's the thing: I don't believe that the melatonin is drugging him into falling asleep.

I believe it has helped him learn what a tired feeling feels like and what he can do about that.

For whatever reason, I don't think he allowed himself to experience this before. My theory is that the melatonin makes his sleepy feeling strong enough that he can't ignore it, but not so strong that he is completely powerless against it.

The melatonin allows him to be mindful of falling asleep and participate in that process. Case in point: he closes his eyes now BEFORE he falls asleep, which he never did previously.

The best part for me is that I can predict, with some certainty, how long our bedtime routine will take and know that I won't be up for 2 hours, roped into a late-night production of Finding Nemo.


Jordan said...

Great post, Christa. I just shared it with a lot of parents who will be able to relate to it, I'm sure.

I'm glad you're all getting some sleep now. It's so hard to cope with life when you're sleep-deprived.

jaki said...

Wow! What a break-thru. How brave you were to try it. I'm so glad it's working for you and for Ben!!
I loved the way you described how Ben is "participating" in his going to sleep...great observations!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Christa! I'm glad you found something that worked to help Ben fall asleep easier (earlier!!).

We have been through intermittent periods with Chee and sleeplessness. We found the pattern for her has everything to do with how many hours of sleep she gets. 10 hours is all she needs, any more than that and she's wild/wired the following night. She's been at 10 hours for a long time, since she was about 2 1/2.

So we're the parents who will, yes, wake a perfectly sleeping child because we know if we don't, we'll pay for it later.

Sarah said...

We give Gabe 1 mg of Melatonin and it works just as well, if you are concerned about amount of melatonin at all. I worried, too, but he functions so much better with a correct amount of sleep.

You probably know that your body produces melatonin naturally when you close your eyes, so that could go hand in hand with the helping Ben to "learn to sleep". If he just closes his eyes, his body will do the rest. Do you find he wakes at night still? Gabe does with regularity, but he has reached a point that he goes back to sleep on his own.

Thanks for your blog. I check it quite often to compare notes.