Dealing with Trauma Related Sleep Issues
Q: I have a 9 month old son who has been with me for 3 months. This is a private domestic adoption. Before me, he had a lot of moves, including his last one being in the middle of the night. He went to sleep in one home and woke up in another. There was also a lot of chaos in his first home, where he lived for his first 4 months, including domestic violence and birth mom’s depression. When I got him at 6 months, he had regressed himself to a newborn. Although we are going through a regression right now, overall, we have made good progress on attachment and bonding. But even when he was feeling more secure, we have had sleep issues.
Our main issue, which has been present for at least 2 months, is that at least once a week, he wakes up anywhere between 3-5 AM and can’t fall back asleep. He is tired and not doing things that usually keep babies up, such as practicing new milestones. He will just lie there, staring at the ceiling and sucking his fingers. If I pick him up, he tries hard to fall asleep, again putting his head on my shoulder, closing his eyes, sucking on his fingers and security blanket. He is clearly not enjoying it but can’t fall back asleep. It usually takes him a full hour before he falls back asleep. I have eliminated all the usual causes – hungry, wet, teething, etc – and I am fairly certain it is trauma related. I am just not sure how to go about dealing with it. Nothing I do seems to help him fall back asleep. I pushed his bedtime back, bought a sleep machine, have a perfectly consistent bedtime routine. I can’t see any difference in the day leading up to it.
A: I agree with you that his sleep issues are probably trauma related. I know it seems like an eternity when you’re the one missing the sleep, but 3 months is a very short period of time to work through this issue. It sounds like he is doing wonderful on the really important issues of bonding and attaching and healing from the traumas in his early life. I truly think you have to give him more time on this sleep issues.
I do have a couple of suggestions. Is he content to just lay there and stare and suck on his fingers without you actively trying to get him back to sleep? If so, fantastic! The ability to self sooth back to sleep is exactly what we are shooting with all of our kids. For some people and at sometimes in life, it simply takes longer to “catch the window” of sleepiness. If he is not quite able to do that without you nearby, could you put a mattress on the floor of his room and try to sleep there without actively engaging in getting him back to sleep?
If none of these suggestions will work, I’d recommend still being present with him which means that you’ll have to lose sleep on those nights. I can’t stress enough how important it is to take care of yourself so you will continue to be able to take such great care of him. This means you need to nap or rest the next day. Can you get someone on backup who can pitch at a moments notice on the following day to allow you a 2 hour nap? It really won’t be forever that you need this and it would give Grandma or good friends or little old church lady or hubby a chance to feel like they are helping you. Now is also the time to let some of the “shoulds” in life slide. You know, the “I really should be _____ (decorating, cleaning, cooking exciting meals, helping out at church, etc.)”. I hope some of this helps and that your little fellow and you are both soon sleeping better.
Image credit: leekelleher