My Daughter Doesn't Sleep

My daughter Lily doesn’t sleep well. She never has. From her birth to age six, she only slept through the night twice. I earned my grey hair during those six years, because I never slept a full night either, except when I was out of town. This was by choice; my wife Robin has trouble sleeping as well, but I always fall asleep easily, so we play to our strengths.

We tried every method and cure on Lily, but nothing worked. We were firm, we were indulgent, we had a schedule, we had a routine, we gave up on the routine, we stopped all electronics, we changed her diet, fed her more fish, we went to doctors, we did a sleep study, we even studied restless leg syndrome and iron deficiency. She needed to sleep and so did we, so we never gave up. Then, gradually, over about a year, she started to sleep through the night. She simply grew out of it -- mostly. She still has some trouble, and about once a month she wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to last night.

Lack of sleep fucks with your mind. Worrying about sleep fucks it up even more. I’m messed up today, and so is she, and the only solace is that once we get through the day we’ll probably sleep like logs tonight. Like I tell her, there has NEVER been a night where she didn’t eventually fall asleep.

I also had trouble sleeping when I was a kid. My problem was falling asleep. I think I mostly did it to myself. For whatever reason, I wasn’t tired when I went to bed and I’d lie there awake and start to worry about what my body was doing.

Am I sleeping now? Is this sleep? Am I falling

And I’d wake myself up. I worried myself into a state of on-and-off insomnia that lasted over a year, and it made me afraid and anxious. I remember enjoying a beautiful day with my family and then suddenly thinking that it would end and night would come, and I’d be filled with dread. I was afraid of the night in the middle of the day. I hated that feeling, yet it dominated my thoughts. However, I consider the experience a lucky gift now because when I see Lily experience the same dread, I can reassure her:

I was like you. I know the feeling. It will pass. Don’t be afraid. I will help you.

Lily’s problem isn’t falling asleep. Her problem is staying asleep. It has many names, and it has many causes, but a lot of people have it, and it’s part of who she is. My grandmother had it her whole life. Our good friend Julie Murphy has it too, and when she babysits Lily she laughs and reassures her that she is not alone, because they share the same trait as well:

I’ve never been a good sleeper either! I always wake up!

When Lily was two years old we visited San Francisco, and when we asked her what she liked most about the trip she said “watching TV together in the hotel bed.” I laughed, since that had nothing to do with the actual trip itself, but then she stopped me and said with a tear in her eye:

No, daddy. Sleep is hard for me. When I wake up, I’m alone.

She said that out loud at the age of two. From that moment on, I promised her that she wouldn’t have to worry alone about it again, which comforts her.

After eight years of light sleep, I am finely tuned to her night patterns. I can be dead asleep and hear a bump in her room and the floor creak, and I am instantly awake, no matter how little sleep I’ve gotten. I lie there and listen to her. She’ll get out of bed, creep down the hall, go to the bathroom, get a drink and go back to bed. If I hear a sigh within five minutes I know that she’ll go back down. This is how it works almost every night now. But once or twice a month, she doesn’t go back down. The sighs continue. I know that the mental spinning has begun:

I can’t sleep. I am alone. No one is with me. When will I sleep? I have a math test today. I can’t sleep. I can’t get comfortable. I’m too hot. I’m too cold. My blanket isn’t perfect. I can’t sleep. My life isn’t perfect. Lila will corner me at recess today, and won’t let me play with Carmen. I’m thirsty. I can’t sleep. Why am I alone?

After ten minutes, she may get out of bed and wander the house. That’s when I remember how my own dread worked at age ten, and I get up. There’s a blanket ready at the foot on my bed and I take that, steer her back into her room and we get back into bed together and I reassure her, an adult man and a girl, lying together in a small double bed:

You are just like me. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. This too will pass. I turned out fine and so will you. This is normal too. You ALWAYS fall back asleep. It will happen.

We have about a thirty-minute window. If I can get her eyes closed and her mind calm within thirty minutes of that first sigh of dread, we can both go back down and only lose 30 minutes of shut-eye.

 If it goes longer, things get tough. Damn it, she’s just awake. Who knows why? And suddenly I’m awake too. I don’t give up, however. I massage her back and feet, I touch her face, we snuggle, she puts her head on my chest and feels my heartbeat as I slowly breathe. We both do ten breaths. We count slowly to one hundred. I tell her a boring story in the dullest whisper I can muster. Everything I do is slow and repetitive so she can focus on something else besides her elusive sleep.

When she was younger and still small enough to carry, we had other rituals. I’d pace the house with her in my arms, and she’d eventually fall asleep on my shoulder. When that didn’t work she’d ask to go outside. The cool air would calm her and regulate her senses. I would always sleep in sweats with flip-flops by the bed in case we had to go outside, so I could wrap her in a blanket around me. I have vivid memories of walking up and down our street in the middle of the night in all kinds of weather, with the moon shining through the clouds, or with a cold breeze blowing. The world was quiet except for the rustling leaves from the wind, and the 101 Freeway rumbling a mile distant. Sometimes I’d hear a train whistle, which was at least five miles further away.  A police car drove by once and the officer lowered his window, but when he spotted Lily they just nodded, waved, and rolled on. A sleepless father and child walking in the middle of the night is not an unusual sight for them, I guess. We’d then go back inside and collapse, and sleep would overtake us. This is the second best scenario because we only lose an hour or two of sleep, which is what happened last night.

Once every few months, however, sleep doesn’t return. If after two hours of trying, she’s still awake, we give up. I understand her frustration at that point -- the whole world is dark and she is alone and wide awake, which is irritating and lonely, and it’s better to just do something else.

We lie and whisper in her bed, and I tell her about my childhood, and we talk about her fears and hopes and dreams. There’s a tall redwood tree in our neighbor’s yard and in the past two years an owl has moved in, and late at night if we lie still we can hear the owl calling. One night there was a lightening storm and we went on the back porch and watched the crackling bolts streak across the sky. We sing songs and I tell her about falling in love with her mother, or how I would walk to school with my brother when I was her age, and that we even took the bus downtown for karate class, which she thinks is amazing.  We pull back her curtains and stare at the redwood tree next door and look for the owl, and stare at the stars. She usually falls asleep before dawn, and I lie awake, listening to the silence. For me, I no longer hear true silence. When there is absence of noise I hear a slight ringing in my ears, which is like a background hum while I watch her sleep until I finally pass out too.

I don’t wish her challenge on anyone, but it’s made her resilient and given us time together we wouldn’t have had otherwise. I want to commission a painting of Lily staring out the window in the middle of the night, her braids on her pillow and her mind full of thoughts as she searches for the owl in the tree.  We all have issues, and our challenges teach us and have their benefits, and Lily is mature beyond her years because of it.

A few years back every night was rough and the days were sometimes rougher. I was producing a show for Ted Skillman of Snackaholic, and he could see that I was exhausted, so I explained my whole story. To his credit, he found my plight intriguing and didn’t make me feel bad about my performance -- he knew my work would get done.

He also confirmed how typical Lily’s condition is, and may actually be normal. He explained how sleeping eight hours straight is actually new in human history. Before electricity, before the constant 24-hour clock, our waking and sleeping rhythms ebbed and flowed with the seasons and the work that needed to be done. Sometimes we slept ten hours, sometimes more, sometimes less. There was usually an “awake time” in the middle of the night, when people would wake up after four hours of sleep, and they’d enjoy the night for two or three hours, and then sleep another four.  They’d eat a meal, make love, look at the stars, study astronomy, write a letter, philosophize -- all in the quiet darkness, slow and unhurried. It was a night rhythm, like cats padding slowly through the alleys at night. Thoughts could come, drifting on a river of life moving deep and slow in the darkness. Discoveries, decisions, observations and appreciations were made, all in slow time.

Maybe there’s nothing wrong with Lily at all. Maybe she has it right, and the rest of the world is wrong. When I told her what Ted told me, we both smiled. We own the night. We’re in no rush.

Here’s some information on divided, or segmented sleep:

Segmented sleep, also known as divided sleepbimodal sleep patternbifurcated sleep, or interrupted sleep, is a polyphasic or biphasic sleep pattern where two or more periods of sleep are punctuated by periods of wakefulness. Along with a nap (siesta) in the day, it has been argued that this is the natural pattern of human sleep. 

A case has been made that maintaining such a sleep pattern may be important in regulating stress. Historian A. Roger Ekirch has argued that before the Industrial Revolution, segmented sleep was the dominant form of human slumber in Western civilization. He draws evidence from documents from the ancient, medieval, and modern world. Other historians, such as Craig Koslofsky, have endorsed Ekirch's analysis.

This is a news report on divided sleep:

This is on sleep and the teenage brain.

Most of all everyone...take naps and sleep!