Night Parenting with Sensory Processing Disorder

I knew long before my daughter was born that we would cosleep. We never bought a crib or even a cosleeper; instead, we bought a larger mattress and got rid of our bed frame. After she was born (in water, at home), the midwife swaddled her and placed her in bed beside me, and from that moment I couldn’t imagine her sleeping anywhere else.

But I didn’t know that she would continue to wake constantly through the night — sometimes as often as every 45 minutes–long past the newborn stage. I didn’t know that she would give up naps at 18 months and still go to bed late and wake frequently at night. I didn’t know that by her second birthday, when even our cosleeping and breastfeeding friends were beginning to enjoy uninterrupted nights of sleep, she would still be waking every two or three hours to nurse.

Around her second birthday, I decided it was time to night wean. She was verbal, attached, and confident. Surely she was ready. I planned to use a modified version of Jay Gordon’s method in which we would only drop one night feeding at a time instead of dropping them all at once. The first night, I nursed her to sleep, but when she woke, I didn’t nurse her. She screamed and cried for a long time as I held her and comforted her, but eventually she fell asleep without it. The next time she woke, and for the rest of the night, I nursed her as usual, and she fell back asleep easily. After a few nights of that, she started sleeping four hours instead of two after she first fell asleep. Then I moved to the next feeding.

Every night I would skip nursing the first time she woke up and insist that she fall asleep again without nursing–but only for that first waking. Over a period of weeks, the first waking moved later and later, and I felt encouraged. I was tired — every night I was awake for an hour or more trying to soothe her as she cried–but it was working! She was sleeping for longer stretches.

Then we hit the 3 am waking. And instead of crying and protesting and finally going back to sleep, she just cried. And cried. And then eventually lay still and tried to go to sleep. And cried more. For hours. Until it was morning, and I finally nursed her as the sun rose because I had promised all night that she could nurse when morning came. And then, exhausted, she and I both finally fell asleep.

Then the longer stretches of sleep that I’d fought so hard to gain grew short again. Soon she was going to bed at 8, waking at 10 or 11, and staying up all night. Until 6 am, when I would finally nurse her. For months we continued the attempt to night wean, my husband and I taking turns with occasional “okay” nights–when she would go back to sleep after an hour or so–and frequent horrible nights when she would stay awake all night long. All of us were miserable.

After about nine months, we went on vacation. Unwilling to let my daughter stay awake screaming all night at my in-laws’ house, I gave up and began nursing her at night again. And to my relief, she slept. Mostly. I realized then that waking to breastfeed was infinitely better than just staying awake–for both of us–and I gave up on night weaning and went back to our former schedule. For the most part, she did too. But once or twice a month, she would wake and simply stay awake. All night.

By her third birthday, her sleep was worse than it had been a year before: she was irregular and unpredictable, rarely sleeping for longer than three hours at a time and often staying awake all night.

Finally, I decided to look into medical causes. I reluctantly admitted the truth to our pediatrician, who, to my relief, suggested not sleep training but a neurotransmitter test. The results showed hormone and neurotransmitter imbalances that did indeed contribute to lack of sleep. Further investigation concluded with a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder, an oversensitivity to sensory input that means my daughter has lived most of her life in constant arousal, her system always poised for fight-or-flight.

No wonder she has trouble sleeping.

Now, just a few short months later, a combination of supplements and occupational therapy has made a world of difference. She averages ten hours of sleep a night — probably not as much as she needs, but far more than she was getting. The nights when she sleeps straight through are gradually starting to outnumber the nights when she wakes. It’s been months since she last stayed awake for hours in the middle of the night. Best of all, she’s becoming a different child: more relaxed, more adaptable, happier. She even sleeps in her own room–and loves it.

There have been many times over the past three years when I’ve been advised to sleep train. “Just let her cry for a few nights and then she’ll sleep,” people would tell me. I always brushed them off, insisting that her sleep wasn’t a serious problem, that we was managing fine. Sometimes that was true. Sometimes I was lying.

But I never really considered sleep training. Even when I began to realize that her sleep patterns were not normal, I was sure that letting her cry was not the answer. All those nights of trying to night wean, it became clear to me that she was trying to sleep — she wanted to sleep — but she couldn’t. Something more than mere habit was waking her. Something bigger than either she or I could control.

It turned out I was right. My daughter’s sensory defensiveness means that her brain doesn’t regulate the way it should. The amazing ability of babies to “self-soothe,” so touted by sleep trainers, is missing from her system. It’s not that she won’t, or that she hasn’t learned; she truly can’t. Her ability to regulate herself is broken, and even when she seems to calm, her stress levels never go back down. With time, practice, and therapy, she will learn these skills, but it will always be harder for her than it is for typical kids.

What if I had tried to train her? What if I’d let her cry it out, left her alone to learn to sleep on her own? My husband asked our occupational therapist (a strong proponent of sleep training, who used the Ferber method with her own kids) if our daughter would have slept better if we’d tried those methods earlier.

“No,” she said. “Your job a parent is to help your child regulate, and your daughter really is incapable of self-regulation. If you hadn’t had the inner resources that you did, to keep helping her and breastfeeding as long as you have, then maybe you would have looked for outside help earlier–but maybe not. But it wouldn’t have worked. She couldn’t have learned these skills by herself. You didn’t have a choice but to parent the way you did.”

I didn’t have a choice about nighttime parenting my child? Then I guess it’s a good thing I made that choice anyway. And despite the many sleepless nights, if I could go back now and reconsider that choice, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Lisa C. Baker is a full-time mom and part-time writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She writes about parenting and environmental topics for various print and online venues. She blogs at Organic Baby Atlanta.

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