A year ago, I was seated in kiddo’s high school cafeteria, listening to sleep researcher Dr. Wendy Troxel make the case for later school start times.
The teenaged brain, she explained, runs on a different schedule than at other times in our lives. Melatonin production shifts, making it nearly impossible for a teen to fall asleep before 11 p.m. or to be fully awake before eight in the morning. And that eight-plus hours of sleep is needed for growing bodies and maturing brains to be healthy.
I asked if naps were an acceptable way to add to a teen’s sleep total.
It turns out not, since the teen brain does its best work at the end of the sleep cycle. A twenty- or thirty-minute power nap was acceptable, according to Dr. Troxel. “More than that,” she said, “and there’s something wrong with your child’s sleep.”
Ask any parent of a child with ADD/ADHD, autism, or an anxiety/panic disorder. Talk to a teen or young adult who’s manifesting bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. One symptom all these disorders have in common is abnormal sleep patterns.
I can, to this day, recite my infant child’s feeding schedule: 4 a.m., 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 9 p.m., 11 p.m. and repeat. Part of it was the easy (meaning “rapid”) digestibility of breast milk. Part of it was nursing for comfort, as kiddo’s brain didn’t come with a self-settling mechanism. But part of it was the lightness of kiddo’s solo sleep. A creaking board outside the nursery, the cat meowing, hubby packing a lunch for work – any of these was enough to wake my child. Forget vacuuming, watching TV or having a conversation, moving a dozed-off child to the safety of a crib…
Other moms would talk about the hours-long, sleep-of-the-dead naps their children took, or how by three months of age they were putting their kids down to sleep at 8 p.m. and not hearing a peep from them till dawn. I wanted to scream. Or throw something. Or both, except I was too tired. Instead I’d chew my lip and turn away, crying, wondering how I was screwing up so badly at mothering that none of us had gotten a decent night’s sleep in years.
My kiddo’s nighttime nursing was followed by night terrors, wherein my still-sleeping child would sit bolt upright, eyes wide open, and scream bloody murder in the middle of the night. After a year of that came the sleepwalking and nightmares.
Kiddo’s first through-the-night sleep didn’t happen until first grade. Even then it was only possible if hubby or I stayed at bedtime, curled on the edge of the mattress until extricating ourselves around midnight.
By mid-grade school, kiddo wanted to learn to sleep alone and booted us from the nighttime routine. Mornings got significantly rougher, with my exhausted and crabby child barely willing to eat before being harangued into the car at the last possible minute. After school was just as rough, with slammed doors and not an ounce of concentration available for homework until after dinner. Turns out the nightmares were back and kiddo was often wide-eyed in the dark from 4 a.m. on, refusing to wake us. A fact my child only admitted to in middle school.
That would be cyber middle school, when kiddo’s schedule relaxed and sleep expanded to around nine hours per night. Suddenly, I had a child who grew six inches in mere months, was rarely sick, trained for 5K races, did mental and emotional heavy lifting in therapy, and started making creative and intuitive leaps again.
In short, I’d anecdotally seen all the advantages the sleep researcher visiting kiddo’s brick-and-mortar high school was touting last year.
Yet there I was, hung up on Dr. Troxel’s response to napping. Wanting to scream or throw something again as she talked about her own offspring – varsity athletics, honors classes – succeeding precisely because of more overnight sleep. “I bet your whole family’s neuro-typical,” wanted to yell. “I bet you never had trouble securing child care in the pre-kindergarten days because your offspring took naps. And I’m guessing you didn’t spend years staggering around like a zombie because you were sleep-deprived, too.” While I could accept that Dr. Troxel knew the difficulty of being a good parent or spouse or employee or friend when running on a wrecked sleep schedule, I wondered if she had any idea what it was like to acknowledge your child as the cause of that wrecked sleep without blaming them for it. To say, over and over, night after night, that your child isn’t doing this on purpose – it’s just part of the package deal.
I was jealous of this accomplished, well-rested mom, pure and simple.
Jealousy didn’t stop me from listening. Later school start times allow students the opportunity to get more sleep, which most teens desperately need. Our school board wanted to explore the idea. I volunteered to help dig into the case studies and the science out there, and wrestle with whether our district could make later start times work. A year later, our group of parents, students, teachers, and administrators is unequivocally recommending to our school board that high school and middle school start no earlier than 8:10 a.m. (and later if we can swing it).
Whether or not the start time moves, my kiddo will probably still take naps. Not just a power nap, but the 90-minute, stress-dumping, clear-the-mental-buffers naps that have been part of our lives since returning to brick-and-mortar school. And if that means little time for varsity athletics or extra honors homework then so be it. With accommodations like naps, my special needs child is right in there, day after day, keeping up with neuro-typical peers in a forward-thinking school district.
That’s been our dream all along.
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