It usually starts like an alien abduction. A small, thin figure appears by the bed in the dead of night, seemingly out of nowhere, startling my husband and me out of a dead sleep. “Daddy,” he hisses; we’re slammed into consciousness. “Daddy. Can I be awake?” My husband scrabbles for his watch. It’s two in the morning, and our eight-year-old can’t sleep again. He sighs. “Whatever, night owl,” he says, rolls over, and goes back to sleep.
August stays awake for several hours (we don’t really know how much most nights), then passes out on the couch. We find him, usually at five or six in the morning, sprawled under a blanket on the loveseat. I poke him enough to make him move over. If it gets too late, I poke him awake and make him get into his own bed.
August is an inveterate night owl. He does this about four times a week. And honestly? My husband and I don’t care.
You Can’t Force A Kid To Sleep
Ever try to force a kid to sleep? Anyone? Yeah, you have. And you know how well it works. As in: it doesn’t. Most likely you’ve tried to rock an annoyed baby to sleep. You’ve laid with a toddler kicking at the ceiling for an hour before you gave up. You’ve shouted at older kids to go to bed, only to peek in and find them reading by flashlight. You cannot force a person to sleep.
August takes melatonin. He doesn’t have trouble falling asleep. He just … wakes up. We have several choices in this situation. One of us could get up. We could drag our eight-year-old up to his top bunk. We could lie down with him at two in the morning. We could fall asleep, and he’d just creep out of bed after we did. We could tell him that no, he cannot be awake, he needs to go get in bed. The poor child would just stare at the ceiling, awake… and we all know how miserable that is for a night owl/insomniac. Or he would make enough noise to wake up his siblings. Or we could tell him that yes, he can get up. Whatever.
We pick the last option. It’s the most humane. If I were a night owl (I’m not, but some nights I have insomnia, and sometimes I have nightmares), I’d want to get up, maybe read or write a little bit, then go back to sleep. Why shouldn’t my son have the same option? I hate to stay in bed, tossing and turning.
Our Night Owl Has Rules
Our little night owl knows that there’s certain things he can and cannot do when he’s awake in the middle of the night. He is not allowed to use screens under any circumstances: he can’t watch TV; he can’t play video games on his tablet. He is not allowed to eat (in case he chokes and no one is awake: that’s my husband’s rule).
He can read. He can play with LEGOs. This is how he generally occupies himself, though our little night owl sometimes draws pictures or plays with other art supplies. He’s eight. We trust him. At eight years old, he listens to us: the tablets are always plugged in the way they were left the night before.
Our Night Owl Has A Biological Reason…
While all of our children have ADHD, our eight-year-old has the most severe case. Kids with ADHD, according to ADDitude Magazine, are three times more likely to have sleep problems than other children. That’s because some of the same parts of the brain that control attention also control sleep. We follow most of their recommendations for good sleep: our son gets plenty of exercise. He has a regular bedtime, and we stick to regular bedtime rituals. And he wears what he wants to wear for sleep. He likes a darker room, so while his brothers may have their own small lights on, he does not.
He’s just a night owl. As ADDitude says, when kids are awake, parents don’t get a lot of sleep. We short-circuit that in our house. Our kid can stay up all by his lonesome, thanks. We’re not feeding his night owl tendencies by making him think he gets his own personal mom-or-dad-time when he wakes up.
Daddy Was A Night Owl
My husband also has ADHD. When he was a kid, he remembers being a night owl just like August. He’d wake in the middle of the night and stay awake— sometimes for a long time. His parents did the same thing we do: they trusted him, they put up with the sleeplessness; they let him grab sleep at other times if he needed it. And eventually, he grew out of it.
We do make sure that everyone in the family gets enough sleep. If August needs to sleep until eleven, he sleeps until eleven, the same way that if I need a nap, I take a nap. It’s only fair. Sleep deprivation is real, and some people just aren’t wired to sleep at the same times as others. Sometimes I wake up early in the morning, nap, and stay up late. At other times I sleep later in the morning. It changes. I roll with it. Why wouldn’t I let my son do the same thing? I realize this isn’t an option for every family, obviously, but it does work for us.
We are living in the middle of a global pandemic. My son is honestly terrified to leave the house. I’m not going to add to his stress levels by making him lie awake in his bed in the middle of the night. Who knows where his thoughts will go? The poor child can’t see his friends. We homeschooled already; he doesn’t have virtual school to lean on. He’s frightened to go to Target; we take him off of our property for more than walks or a bike ride about once a week. That’s clearly not enough.
So I have more important things to worry about than him being a night owl.
During this time, a lot of parenting norms have gone out the window. This is one of them. Maybe if we weren’t living in the middle of COVID-19, I’d think about a sleep study, but we are in close contact with his pediatrician and right now we are not pursuing additional testing. Honestly? He’s fine, he’s not bothering anymore, and he’s getting enough sleep, it’s just on his own schedule.
In a time like this, that’s good enough for me.