Night time parenting with gifted children is not for the faint of heart. Anxiety, sensitivity, and sensory needs can make rest with your differently-wired kiddo hard to come by. But with a little time and a few simple strategies, everyone in the family will be on the path to better sleep.
Sleep is kind of a four letter word around our house.
Except it’s five letters. But you know what I mean.
I’ve never been one of those moms whose children fall asleep quickly, in all manner of places. The closest we ever got to that was the “sleepy corn” incident, when our then two and a half-year-old sat at the dinner table at half-mast, protesting her fatigue with each mouthful of Carolina Silver Queen.
Sleep isn’t just a five letter, four letter word in our house. It’s a cross between Goodnight Moon, Cirque de Soleil, and Dante’s Inferno.
- Child Number One. Woke every forty-five minutes for the first 22 months of her life. I woke in a panic at 6 AM the first time she slept through (October 8, 2008), convinced she was no longer breathing. This child is my nighttime conversationalist and adventurer. At 18 months, she woke me to discuss the social habits of marine mammals. At 3, she woke up under her bed after an evening of archaeological expedition. She is now the champion sleeper in the house, except that she spends an hour or two after lights out reading Tolkien (or Whybrow, or the Illustrated Children’s Dictionary) under the sheets with a flashlight. We do not, under any circumstances, wake her prior to 8 AM. Because Gremlins.
- Child Number Two. Still routinely wakes at least once a night. Holds the title for eliciting the most un-nurturing nighttime parenting response: during a particularly difficult night playing the teething game with our youngest, I declared (rather emphatically, I’m afraid) that the only monster in her room that night was me. Nighttime fears include monsters, missing stuffed animals, the likelihood of World War III and social justice issues.
- Child Number Three. Must sleep at my side, his head beneath my armpit and his feet against my belly. Enjoys midnight strolls to the basement and dramatic requests for apples at 2 AM.
- Mom and Dad (also known as zombies). Think they may remember uninterrupted sleep, but suspect those memories are either fabricated or wild hallucinations.
At first, I tried to console myself: gifted children need less sleep. Their brains are busy. Wired. Solving complex mathematical theorems whilst composing the next Great American Novel.
I’m no longer sure that is the case, and not just because none of them has won A Millennium Prize or Pulitzer. Over the years, I’ve learned nighttime struggles aren’t necessarily a direct result of giftedness. They’re more likely a symptom of the overexcitabilities and sensitivities that come hand in hand with being gifted. For our family, this includes sensory processing disorder and emotional, imaginational, and psychomotor overexcitabilities.
Winding down becomes a struggle, staying asleep is a challenge, and encouraging solid nap times is nigh impossible.
This, of course, is when you have meltdowns and tantrums (and I’m not just referring to the parents). Restful sleep is important for everybody, so how have we encouraged it over the years?
A fairly consistent bedtime routine
This looks different for every family. In our house, it has varied with each child and phase of life. Right now, we read books and snuggle with whoever needs it the most (sometimes it’s one child, sometimes it’s all three), then the girls play their imaginary “mixed game” for twenty minutes while one of us snuggles the youngest to sleep. These outlets give the kids time to decompress and work through the day’s kinks, thus making the transition to sleep a little easier (in theory, anyway). I’ve found the key is flexibility, though, changing the order of things that have stopped working before resentment or frustration sets in.
An active reduction in anxiety triggers
As a Catholic family, this has included bedtime prayers and blessings with holy water. Focusing on love languages helps, too, as does parental proximity (staying close by on the floor, outside the door or in the next room as they fall asleep). We try to use techniques that will make fears and anxieties less likely to crop up, then help them foster necessary coping skills when they do anyway.
A proactive approach to sensory issues
The biggest sticking point for us has been sensory issues. All of our kids need to sleep in a cocoon-like environment, thus the youngest’s preference for mom’s nighttime real estate and the girls’ tendency to bury themselves in quilts and stuffed animals. Sound machines and music have played an important role, too, as have flannel-like sheets and non-scratchy sleepwear. During the day, we try to give them as much physical activity as possible, plus liberal access to their preferred coping tools.
An open mind with regards to medical intervention
When things got really bad with B, we decided to try melatonin. It helped immensely, but I encourage you to make the decision in concert with a physician.
And finally, a willingness to wait it out
If you’re in the trenches of sleep deprivation with your gifted kiddos, I almost hate to tell you this. But the truth is, the only thing that’s worked consistently for us is maturity and the passage of time. We can’t make kids eat. We can’t make kids sleep. What we can do is provide an environment conducive to both, and be patient while the years work their magic.
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