It’s 11:30 p.m. and I’ve just turned off my reading light when I feel my eight-year-old daughter come into my bedroom.
“I can’t sleep, mom,” she declares tearfully. “Help me! I don’t know what to do!”
It’s the umpteenth time this exact scenario has played out, and I’m still not certain how to handle it. I started out with encouraging cuddles and soothing words, but that led to an increasing number of nocturnal visits between midnight and 2 a.m. The strategy wasn’t working, so I tried a new one.
“This is a pill I take when I can’t sleep,” I told her, taking my little bottle of melatonin tablets out of the drawer.
The pills taste just like peppermints and seemed like a harmless choice, even if they were promoting the notion that drugs can solve your problems. They were sold in the dietary supplements section of the drugstore I frequent in the United States, so I thought: how unsafe could they be?
But as the days ticked by, I started noticing my melatonin bottle was emptying on its own. The thought of my daughter sneaking one into her bedroom every night became disconcerting.
Meanwhile, we lay in bed at night perplexed by her tears and increasing hysteria. She would treat us to a 90-minute saga complete with helpless sobbing and lamenting the state of her life. “I want my life back!” she yelled once, an exclamation that only perplexed us further.
There was nothing wrong with her life as far as we could see. She attended a nice Jewish day school, went to birthday parties and had frequent playdates. She played tennis after school, participated in the choir and danced in the Israeli dance festival each year. What more could an eight-year-old want?
Yet, every night brought the same melodrama. In the morning, the sweet child we loved would be back at our bedside, apologizing for waking us and promising profusely that the next night would be different.
“This sleeptime drama is nonsense,” I told my husband. “Maybe we should be harder and stricter with her.”
When you’re a parent, there’s a delicate balance between worry and complacency. Your gut reaction is always a concern, but you also have to examine the evidence and reach a reasonable conclusion.
“Take her to a therapist,” a family friend suggested.
“For what?” I wondered. She’s a normal, well-adjusted child who just happens to make herself very hysterical at bedtime.
I remembered my own childhood stints of insomnia only too well. I’d get into bed and start worrying that I’d not be able to fall asleep. I’d hear my parents prepare for bed and worry even more that I’d be the only one awake in the house. My mom, an angel in her nightgown, would bring me hot water bottles and steaming cups of Milo, a chocolate malt energy drink, convincing me with patient, soothing words that these would help bring sleepiness to my mind.
“Even if you don’t sleep, your body will rest as you lie in bed, and that’s important too,” she said, echoing words her own father had spoken to her many years earlier. Eventually, sleep would come, but not before I’d spent hour upon hour in a state of anxious wakefulness.
With my daughter, I decided to be firm.
“We’re done with nighttime visits,” I told her flatly. “If you come into our room after we’ve said goodnight, there will be smacks and shouting. It won’t be pretty.”
We’ve had three weeks of uninterrupted nights since that conversation, and I’m praying her sleeptime dramas are a thing of the past. Just in case I’m wrong, though, I’ve replaced all my melatonin tablets with Altoids mints. I’ll sleep better knowing that if my daughter is taking pills to help her sleep, they’ll give her nothing more than a placebo and some minty breath.