My son is nocturnal. He’s wired that way and has been since birth. I can see now that his unwillingness to sleep at night is incurable. Despite all my efforts to turn him into a daytime person, he remains a creature of the night. When he was a baby he cried all night long. I remember gripping his bassinet and crying in frustration at my inability to get him to sleep. Now I know he was crying all night because he was bored. He couldn’t sleep and wanted something to do.
Over the years we have tried everything short of drugging him to get him to sleep. When he was a toddler we tried removing anything that was entertaining and might keep him busy. His room was stripped to the essentials, as clean as a monk’s cell, yet he still lay awake staring at the ceiling, thinking, and talking to himself. We tried sleep deprivation, waking him up at 6:00 am every morning for months, he outlasted us. He could stay up half the night, be dragged out of bed at sunrise, and still make it through the day. We could not. We tried bribery. We bought him toys and books he wanted that could only be played with during the day. Still he didn’t sleep through the night. He would stay up until midnight, sleep for a few hours; then he would be up again to play with the coveted items. He has gone a full day without sleeping and finally collapsed in a heap mid-morning. We tried sleeping on the floor of his room, keeping lights out, insisting on quiet. All that achieved was exhaustion and sore muscles on our part, no change on his. Okay I admit it, I even tried drugging him. One night in desperation I gave him some Benadryl, it didn’t work. It put him into a frenzied, hyper state for most of the night. When I told our pediatrician, she laughed and said that Benadryl can have that effect; but she told me that my son was healthy and that different kids need different amounts of sleep. She assured us that as long as he was getting the hours of sleep his body needed, and we could live with his schedule, not to worry about it.
I still worried though and as he got older we had long discussions about the importance of sleep, the impact his non-sleeping has on our family, and the importance of functioning in-sync with society. While he would get teary eyed at the thought of upsetting his family and not fitting in with society, his answer was always, “I need more time to work and I think better at night.” I tried to pinpoint what it was about the night that made his brain work better. He told me when the house was quiet and no one was disturbing him he could do more work. We agreed to put a lock on his door (the kind you can easily open with a nail) to ensure he wouldn’t be disturbed during the day while he was thinking. It didn’t work; he found he loved the quiet work time during the day and his work time at night.
When he is immersed in learning, he just can’t quit until he feels he’s mastered the current area of interest. Over the years we have seen him go through a chemistry phase, a physics phase, a chess phase, a math phase, and he is currently on a Conway’s Game of Life phase. He is a relentless, highly motivated learner who feels he just can’t get enough information crammed into 24 hours. I know that some of our friends and family think we are too lenient, that we just need to set firm boundaries and take control. Despite our stories of having tried to do just that, and the obvious knowledge that our son is not a normal kid, people are still judgmental. Lest you think we are lackadaisical parents, you should know that despite Aspergerish tendencies, our son is usually polite, kind, empathetic, and obedient in most areas.
Over the years, my experience with my son has helped me realize several things: he doesn’t need as much sleep as we do, he has difficulty shutting his brain down to sleep, he is driven to figure things out, and he can’t rest until he does. So I have conceded defeat. He sets his own sleep schedule. We are homeschoolers, so we often have the flexibility to allow him to sleep during the day. He has two rules that are inflexible: he is not allowed to be noisy and wake the rest of us up; and he has to willingly (even if he is comatose) get up and come with us as needed during the day. It seems to be working, my son is happy and engaged in life, he has time to do the work he feels is so important, and he has lots of play time and interaction with family and friends in the afternoon and evenings. I have given myself and our family permission to be different and not to worry about what others think. I believe our respect for our son’s needs has taught him to respect other’s needs and our flexibility has shown him how to find creative solutions to difficult problems. Our belief that each child has the right to help decide how, when, and what they learn has opened opportunities for our children that might not have otherwise existed. Most importantly, our son feels that he is okay just the way he is and that his family loves him, even if he is creature of the night.