How We Helped our Autistic Daughter Sleep Through the Night After Years of Severe Sleep Deprivation

If your child does not sleep through the night, you are going to love this article! Until very recently I was lucky to get four or five broken hours shut eye…

Anyone who follows this blog will already know that severe sleep deprivation has been a major part of mine and hubby’s lives the entire time we’ve been parents. I’m not just talking about a few months here and there when the kids were tiny, I’m talking not having an entire week of unbroken sleep in over eight years. I’m sure most will agree that is a very long time.

sleep through the nightPrior to our eldest daughter Polly’s autism diagnosis in 2015, we honestly thought we were just clueless parents, convinced that we must be missing a trick. We had to be going wrong somewhere along the line. Why did everyone else’s kid sleep through the night but not ours?

There’s no way to dress it up, right from birth Polly was a terrible sleeper. We didn’t know any different though, and took it on the chin in those early days. Things got really bad for us when I was heavily pregnant with our second daughter, Clara. After a hideous night of almost no sleep at all, I went to work and cried my eyes out, begging my old boss to let me start maternity leave a few weeks before I was due to.

By the time our new baby came along we were dreading the sleep side of things, and totally expected the worst

Fortunately for us we were blessed with an incredible sleeper. With no intervention from us whatsoever, Clara was getting a solid twelve hours by the time she was three months old. Polly however was up every night, seriously distressed, having monumental meltdowns. Her behaviour during the day was beyond challenging, and I look back on this time with immense sadness.

Everyone was miserable and it was definitely a turning point for us as a family. I went into frantic mama bear mode. Having suffered with gastro problems myself as a child, I became convinced that Polly’s issues were linked to allergies. Turns out I wasn’t entirely wrong, because just before her third birthday she was diagnosed with a food intolerance list as long as your arm. Cue two years of strict exclusion diets, as well as our third child.

The clean eating certainly helped, but it didn’t solve Polly’s sleep problems. By the time Freddy came along we’d read every website and parenting self-help book we could get our hands on. No matter what we tried nothing seemed to help Polly sleep through the night.

sleep through the nightThat is until our first autism assessment, where we heard two words that would change our lives: sleep hygiene

This term had never come up in anything we had previously read, but it instantly felt like we were being handed a gift. Sleep hygiene is essentially a series of bedtime (and for us nighttime) habits that need to be set in place and stuck to rigidly. It sounds so simple, but let’s face it, especially in hindsight, it always does.

The reason I feel qualified to share our experience now, is because we’ve been doing these things for more than two years and have ruled out any happy coincidences. I can put my hand on my heart and say that they definitely work.

Create good sleep hygiene, to help your child sleep through the night, using these steps

“Figure out a bedtime routine that suits everyone, and stick to it like glue.”

Our paediatrician Dr. K’s words now sound like a complete no-brainer. Trust me though, having sat on both sides of the fence, I know how hard it can be to devise, implement and adhere to a routine. With the best will in the world, life gets in the way doesn’t it? The thing about a sleep problem, is that it really needs to be given top priority within the family. When your child is sleep deprived, so are you, and we all know that it’s a form of torture.

sleep through the nightGive yourself at least three months to put these steps into place, without expectation or changes to the schedule. We started seeing improvements in Polly after the first week, but once we’d been at it for three months real progress was evident.

Things to consider before anything else

Creating a good sleeping environment is just as important as the routine itself. A dark cosy room, which isn’t full of distractions is a must, especially for children on the spectrum whose minds can be more difficult to quiet at the end of a busy day. Polly had her own room for years, and our younger two shared, but we moved her in with Clara about a year ago and it improved Polly’s sleep even further.

Something we hadn’t banked on was that sometimes Polly was waking in the night because she felt lonely, and now that she has the presence of her sister in the room that isn’t the case.

The girls adore their bunk beds and devised a rota among themselves for who sleeps at the top so there are no arguments. They agreed that Polly could go first as she’s the eldest, then after one week it was Clara’s turn, then Polly, etc. During the first week they actually decided they liked the Polly up top/Clara at the bottom set up and have not been arguing about swapping.

For those considering bunk beds for children who have a fairly small age gap, and will find any excuse to argue, I can highly recommend thinking about a rota.

Things to do before bedtime

It’s easy to say keep stress to a minimum, but it does massively impact the witching hour. In my experience stress has always been the number one trigger for meltdowns during bedtime. The trouble is, once stress hormones have been stirred up, it can be very difficult to get your child to go to sleep.

sleep through the nightIf there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that calm is the most important factor in getting a decent nights rest. Even once a child is asleep, the quality of that sleep will likely be poor if they’ve stressed themselves out beforehand.

My children usually watch a film in the early evening, and we don’t allow small screens past 5pm. We have at least half an hour, if not longer, downtime between the TV going off and the kids going to bed. This allows them sufficient transition time from one task to the next.

Things to do during bedtime

I take my hat off to those who have multiple children of varying ages, and manage to stick to a routine at the exact same time every single night. For us we aim for certain things to happen within a time frame, but with the best will in the world it isn’t always possible.

We also find with our kids that a routine will work for a few months, then things will start sliding and need to be changed. We have structured our evening quiet time around playing LEGO, colouring, doing jigsaw puzzles and reading stories. At the moment they are enjoying meditation sleep stories in bed, which help them relax before dropping off.

It’s also vital that Polly gets to tick everything off her mental check list before going to sleep, otherwise she feels like something is missing. She needs to have fresh water in her bottle, she needs to know the details of what will be happening the sleep through the nightnext day, her hair has to be tied up in a certain way, and she absolutely must get goodnight kisses from the entire family. It took us a long while to realise that not ticking everything off her list was causing her serious anguish.

Things to do for night time wake ups

The million pound question for us c.2015 was what to do in the middle of night when Polly woke up distressed for whatever reason. The answer was getting to the bottom of what she needed and finding a solution as quickly as possible.

When we started out, Polly was waking on average ten times a night, often having bedtime-like meltdowns in the small hours. We were advised by Dr. K to silently guide her back to bed, without interacting with her, even if it took all night. My husband and I were absolutely dreading this, and the first few nights were indeed horrendous, but by the end of the first week we saw a massive improvement. By the end of the month we were astonished at how far we’d come, and by the time we had hit the three month mark she was consistently sleeping through the night for the first time ever.

Nowadays Polly only wakes in the middle of the night if she needs the toilet, or has had a scary dream and wants some comfort. I honestly cannot remember the last time she was up for more than fifteen minutes in the middle of the night.

An overview 

Bottom line is, if your child is a poor sleeper, you are going to be sleep deprived which adds an extra layer of difficulty to your days as a parent. Here are my biggest tips to help your kids get some Zzzzz’s:

  • eat a healthy balanced diet of real food
  • rule out any medical problems
  • limit small screens, especially in the hour or two before bed
  • ensure their sleeping environment is comfortable, a good quality bed is an absolute must
  • keep stress to a minimum
  • structure your bedtime routine around doing quiet activities to wind down
  • read or listen to stories while your child is in bed
  • make sure their mental checklist has been completed
  • meet their needs in the night quickly with minimal interaction

Best of luck mama’s and dada’s. I hope you get your child sleeping through the night in no time! 

For My Lovely Friend Embarking on Her Third Baby

letter to my lovely friend embarking on her third babyDearest B,

With the world between us, and a time difference that makes even Skyping nyon impossible, I thought I’d write you this little note. Otherwise we both know that my baby-adled brain will completely forget all that I want to say.

First and foremost hugest congratulations! Although a third baby was inevitable for you and S at some point, the likelihood is that this was not planned and therefore a massive shock to the system. At 17 weeks you probably haven’t even announced it at large, because you feel it might be seen as greedy having three when some poor souls desperately want just one but don’t have any.

I know you can’t see past the nausea at the moment, but even if it lasts the entire nine months (which I sincerely hope it doesn’t), you know already how fast the time passes. Before you know it you’ll have that bubba in your arms, life will be very different and the sickness will be long forgotten.

The fact is, most people aren’t brave enough to have a third. It’s such a big jump going from one to two, that it puts most folk off having another one. There is much written about the third child being the hardest, and I’m inclined to agree. I’m certainly not brave enough to have the fourth I always said I wanted.

I know for a fact that your new addition will only be fed in the sling, which will free up your hands to become even more adept at multi-tasking. Coffee will become your new best friend, closely followed by dry shampoo. You’ll make your peace early on with how much of a tip the house is in most of the time; and you’ll go through stages of feeling despondent over how much your standards have dropped.

You’ll question how you will possibly function on an even smaller amount of sleep than you were getting before. Surely you can’t do it? After discovering that yes indeed you very much can, you will surprise yourself and wistfully start future gazing; wondering about how much more you could achieve if only you were getting six solid hours a night.

This one won’t go to any play groups, but somehow s/he will be more advanced than the girls were at his/her age. They will be an Olympic crawler at six months, and play with toys meant for a three or four year old by the age of one.

Baby toys will be looked upon with absolute disgust and given away to friends who are expecting their first child. They will LIVE in onesies for at least the first year of their life. You will feel guilty that this one never gets any of your attention, but console yourself that all third children have TCS.

You will marvel multiple times a day about how much life has changed. How it’s so far removed from the carefree travelling lifestyle we used to live and now seems so out of reach. I know that you and S will get yourselves on the road again, and prove that it is possible to be adventurous whilst having three kids. Of that I have no doubt.

You will look ahead often, and wonder when it all starts getting easier. Take it from me honey, it never gets easier. Life with three kids (or any amount of kids for that matter) will always be challenging. Embrace the challenges, and learn to find some enjoyment in even the toughest days.

Know that we love you all so very much, and hope to see your beautiful faces again in person some time soon.

Very best of luck to you my darling friend,

Reneé xx

The Things This Sleep Deprived Mama Does to Get Through Her Day

The Things This Sleep Deprived Mama Does to Get Through Her Day“How do you function?”

This is the most common question I’m asked.

When people learn that I’ve spent the last six years plus existing on a minuscule amount of sleep, they are shocked, because I always seem so energetic apparently (they should see me at 3am!)

I used to love my sleep, and in my younger days had an uncanny ability to nod off just about anywhere – as demonstrated in the photo below.

Ren asleep at a bar

Nowadays, because I’m so very sleep deprived, there are lots of little things I do to get through my day. So here we go… in no particular order…

Coffee. I’ve come to realise that I absolutely adore the black stuff, and that it makes me very happy indeed. I only drink freshly brewed, cap it at three cups per day, and try to be done with my caffeine fest by midday. Otherwise I’ll be laying in bed wired, unable to capitalise on the few precious moments shut eye I can snatch before the kidlets start their triple team sleep thievery act.

Extra long toilet breaks. How else would I get my blog written? In fact how do you think I’m writing this post?

Making my peace with having a messy house. I’ve accepted that my house will rock the just been burgled look most days, and I don’t let it bother me. My kids can trash the place in an exceptionally short amount of time, and I’m hardly going to waste my energy picking up toys all day long am I? Oh how the standards have dropped between child #1 and #3!

Catching up with good friends. Not the school gate mums, not the play group mums, but real mates. Gals that make me belly laugh, and know me inside out. I’m very lucky that I have lots on my doorstep with children similar ages to mine, and I make a big effort to regularly see the ones who aren’t so close by. Then there’s always Skype if distance is a problem (several of my besties live in Australia).

TV babysitter. I don’t beat myself up for sticking the kids in front of iPlayer or Netflix so I can do a bit of writing, cooking, or staring into space.

Not keeping a tally. I stopped mourning the lost hours of rest a long time ago, and see no value in banging on about the obvious. I’ve politely told all my friends not to ask ‘how last night was’ because there’s a 99% chance my honest answer would be ‘horrendous’.

Eating great food. I eat a super clean diet which keeps me level and boosts my brain. This means saying a big fat no to refined carbs and sugars and eating tons of salads and good quality proteins and fats.

Funky music. There’s nothing like a bit of Uptown Funk or Shake it Off to snap me out of a foul mood.

A little tipple. If all else fails and it’s been one of those days, then I’ll have a G&T (just the one) to help me survive the witching hour.

Going to bed as early as possible. I put my phone on aeroplane mode and head upstairs somewhere between 9-9:30pm. The bliss I feel climbing into bed and under the duvet is pretty indescribable. Even though in my heart of hearts I know that I’ll be woken up roughly 15 seconds after falling asleep, I shall remain optimistic!

How do you get through your day?

This blog can also be found on the Huffington Post

An Open Letter to the Sleep Experts

The Davis Kids SEPT15

Butter wouldn’t melt!

Dear Sleep Experts,

I have read so many books, blogs and websites over the years written by your good selves, and have dutifully taken advice on-board, and tried to implement good sleeping habits for my kids. Unfortunately though, we seem to be absolutely jinxed in my house when it comes to getting some kip.

It all started four years ago, just after our eldest turned two. We’d recently moved her into a big girl bed and also had noisy neighbour issues (oh the irony, for now we are most certainly the noisy ones). She went from sleeping 7-7 most nights to causing merry hell every single night, often waking up ten times plus, and taking hours to settle. As this played out I was expecting our second daughter, and things got so bad that I had to start maternity leave early.

Our new addition (now 3½) was a dream baby. She slept through the night without any training at ten weeks old, and continued to sleep just beautifully until very recently. My husband and I never got to catch up on our lost zzzzz’s though, because our eldest had become a nightmare by then. Full scale meltdowns in the middle of the night had become par for the course, and our coffee intake went through the roof.

Fast forward to today: we’ve had another baby (our son who is 20mo), as well as an ASD diagnosis. It goes some way to explain why our girl finds it so difficult to get back to sleep when she wakes, but it doesn’t feel particularly comforting right now.

Although he slept well as a new baby, our son’s sleep took a nose dive towards the end of last year and drastic action was taken just last month to break the milk/sleep association. Even though it felt like I was going against mother nature all the way, we completely weaned him off the breast in a desperate attempt to get him sleeping better.

It hasn’t worked, and our sleep situation has never been as bad as it now, because all three of them have been triple teaming us. No sooner does one stop balling, one or two of the others pick up the baton and continue the sleep thievery relay!

I’ve come to the conclusion that for our eldest to have half a chance of sleeping she has to have a stress free day, which is impossible to orchestrate when she has been to school. Although she enjoys learning, and likes to see her friends, she struggles in the classroom environment, and this is a breeding ground for stress. Which leads to her not being able to switch her thoughts off when it comes to going to sleep (or going back to sleep in the middle of the night).

As they share a bedroom, our middle girl has had to put up with a lot of disturbance. Figuring there would never be a good time, two weekends ago we moved her into a new bed, and since then she has hardly slept through the night at all. Being a child that is used to sleeping solidly, it’s really affecting her and we’re seeing more tantrums than ever before.

As for our youngest, who knows what’s going on with him, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern. It doesn’t matter how much he eats, whether he naps during the day or for how long, whether it’s a full moon. He is up on average five times a night, and often ends up in the marital bed, because trying to settle him back to sleep causes such a racket that it wakes the girls up.

This is how things panned out last night, which is fairly standard at the moment

6-6:30pm: Hubby did littlest’s bedtime, which sounded challenging and involved a lot of tears, while I read the girls a story
6:30-7:15pm: after a bit of messing around, the girls settled and fell asleep
10pm-midnight: littlest up three times, becoming noisier and noisier. Hoping it would pacify him and not wake the girls up I got him in bed with us
shortly after this: middle up for the first time, screaming because she couldn’t find her night light, even though it was in the bed next to her, she woke eldest up in the process
midnight – 2:30am: Eldest up and down five or six times with hubby, in the end demanded me, I went in to her three times before she finally went back to sleep
4am: middle up again screaming because it was too dark in the bedroom, again ignoring the night light in her bed
in the mean time: littlest had stolen my place and I ended up at the foot of the bed like the family pet
All kids up for the day at 6am

Can you help us?

I’m pretty sure that being the experts you will have lots of advice for us, so hit me with it. I’m all ears! If you fancy staying at our house for a few days to help turn our sleep situation around, I would gladly write about it here on the blog, and sing your praises all over social media in return.

Waiting with baited breath,

Severely Sleep Deprived Mum of Three

What Not to Say to the Severely Sleep Deprived

Since P went back to school at the beginning of the month, sleep in my house has gone from pretty poor to absolutely horrendous. She’s been up to her old tricks – messing around at bedtime and dragging it out as much as she can, no doubt stirring up the stress hormone cortisol just beautifully. The knock on from this is of course night wakings, along with getting up for the day at the crack of dawn. You can only imagine how knackered she is, and the effect this has on her ability to keep her natural urges to pinch people and scream in their faces under control.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, my worst nightmare became a reality. 3½yo C who slept through from 10 weeks old and has always been our solid sleeper (even through sickness or cutting her molars) has started copying her big sister. She has only slept through the night twice in the last fortnight, and it’s taking even longer to settle her than it is P. Add to the mix a 19mo F who is sleeping and eating WORSE than just before I weaned him off the breast in a desperate attempt to turn things around last month, and we have ourselves a recipe for trouble in the most exhausting, torturous of ways.

Sleep deprivation has been a huge feature the entire time I’ve been a mum, during which I’ve been offered lots of well meaning platitudes, which offer little in the way of comfort. While I don’t want to be bitter about my lack of zzzz’s, it can be impossible to not get annoyed at some of the things people have said to me.

what not to say to the severely sleep deprived

I’m sure she’ll start sleeping better when she’s 3/4/5/6…

I’ve known for a long time that there was more to P’s sleep problems than just her being a tricky kid, and now we know that she has high functioning autism. It explains a lot, but also fills us with dread for the future. The poor girl has incredible difficulty switching off her thoughts, and if she’s hyped herself up during bedtime it becomes even harder. She is not going to outgrow autism, and start sleeping twelve hours a night. It does not work like that. I gave up waiting for that ‘magical turning point’ when she was about a year old. She’s never followed the text books, and I can’t see she ever will.

Some kids just need less sleep than others

No no no! I do not buy this one at all. I have yet to meet a child who is getting significantly less than their recommended 10-12 hours who is a joy to be around and copes wonderfully with life. Children need their sleep. End of.

My baby was a nightmare for the first x months

Newsflash: all babies are a nightmare for some part or all of their first year! This is a fact that’s been shared so much by parents to non-parents, that I’m astounded it even comes as a small surprise to new parents. Although I can empathise with how hard it is at first, because it’s all so new first time around, unless you have twins or more you can always offset a bad night with a chilled day and nap if you’re on maternity leave.

Why don’t you just ignore her when she’s screaming her head off or put a stair gate on her room?

Mainly because I have two other children to consider, plus the teeny tiny fact that she’s six years old and could easily unlock it. This may work for some people, and that’s just great, but it would have never and will never work for my family. 

My little brother was a terrible sleeper, it was a killer for my mum (or something along these lines)

For the most part people just want to be nice when they relate your experience to their own, I’ve done it myself many times. BUT unless you have had at least five years of sleep-hell caused by at least two children, then I’m afraid you really can’t relate to what I’m going through.

What you could do instead

Next time your friend cries on your shoulder about the dreadful time they are having due to sleep thievery, rather than offering up a platitude just let them cry and vent, and get it all out of their system. Preferably over a large cup of coffee!

Offer to have your friend and their kids over for a playdate, and do the bulk of the childcare while they get to enjoy a hot cuppa. Rest assured that this small gesture will go a long long way.

If you’re feeling really generous you could take one (or more) of their kids for a sleepover, which will give your friend a small chance of getting a little bit of extra rest 🙂

Many thanks to Charlotte at Mummy Fever for her fab piece about the difference between being tired and sleep deprivation for inspiring this post!

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