The latest instalment in the Survivor Stories is by formerly sleep-deprived mother-of-two Leila Boukarim. On discovering her son was a Highly Sensitive Child (HSC) she decided to change the world…starting with a series of children’s books!
“Prolonged sleep deprivation is a miserable, unnatural phenomenon that will drive anyone to the brink of total insanity. At times, I was convinced it might even kill me. And no matter how many books you read or what people will tell you, nothing can really prepare you for the nightmare that is sleep deprivation.
Most, if not all, parents are aware that the first few weeks, maybe even months, will be hard. Mother Nature even prepares a woman for this by giving her the gift of pre-natal insomnia to get her body ready and help her go through the ugly sleepless phase during which her baby needs her the most.
And that is what most parents will do: they will simply go through this phase, and they will come out the other end in one piece, virtually scar free, their sanity intact.
The rest of us however, have to survive.
When our son was born, he spent the first two days of his life sleeping so much that we actually had to wake him up to feed him. It was only when we brought him home from the hospital that we realized that we had been played by an infant, and that our baby was not, in fact, a good sleeper. Our baby did not like to sleep, and he didn’t do much of it for the next three years. No, not months, but years!
Concerned about my baby, but mainly about myself and my husband, I eventually asked our pediatrician what we might be doing wrong. I was hoping for an answer that would magically make all our problems go away. Some miracle technique, a song, baby tea, magical incense, soothing massage, scented lotion, hypnosis; anything that would make our baby sleep. After all, everyone told us he’d be sleeping through the night by the time he was three-months-old, and it had been almost a year now. We had read everything on healthy sleeping habits and had established a proper bedtime routine from the first week. And yet, here we were, two zombies with a baby desperately searching for answers.
What the doctor said took us by surprise. Our hopes of a miracle were crushed right there in that clinic, and it took us a while to collect ourselves after she gave us the shocking news. “Some babies don’t need much sleep. There is nothing you can do about that. Deal with it.”
That was it. Our baby had won the war. Nothing we did could make him sleep. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. We had a baby who was doing just fine sleeping for two hours and then waking up for five, and then falling back asleep just as we had to get up and get ready for work. He was happy. He was healthy. We were not.
It was only about six months after my son started to sleep through the night that I discovered he was Highly Sensitive. For years my husband and I had no clue why he didn’t follow the rules of “normal” behaviour and development that all the books and experts will have you expect. He was fine; he was extremely bright; he was loving and affectionate. But there was something that seemed to make our situation especially challenging, and we couldn’t really put our finger on what it was.
The fact that he almost never slept and woke up if we breathed anywhere near him was only one of them. Our son did not want to socialise with anyone he didn’t already know and love; other children drove him crazy; any activity that involved water play, loud music, crowds, or physical exertion would always lead to an uncontrollable and embarrassing public meltdown. That made playgrounds, water parks, sprinklers in the garden, pools, birthday parties, malls, and even having people over, very bad things for our family, even though they were fun for all the other families we knew.
Finding Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Child, changed our lives. All the pieces of the puzzle were finally starting to come together. Being Highly Sensitive is not an illness or a disorder; it is not something that needs to be cured or treated. It is simply a trait that is found in 15-20% of the population and in over 100 different species. A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) will have a highly tuned nervous system leading him/her to process sensory input much more deeply than the average person. And although this can be a wonderful thing, allowing HSPs to have richer, more meaningful experiences, it can also be extremely overwhelming, especially for a child for whom the world seems bigger, brighter and louder than it already is.
It took my husband and I a while before deciding to have another child. We had just started sleeping through the night, albeit with our now bigger son sleeping sideways between us; but nevertheless, sleep, no matter how it came, was good. And chronic sleep deprivation is not one of those things that is easier to deal with the second time around, just because you’ve done it before. It remains an equally miserable phenomenon that pushes your body and mind to unnatural limits you never thought existed, regardless of how experienced you now are at not sleeping.
But we did it. Our second little boy came, beautiful as the first, and also decided not to start sleeping through the night when he was supposed to. Luckily however, he threw in the towel after “only” 15 months (turns out he is not highly sensitive and our “loud” breathing doesn’t seem to bother him). And even though waking up every two hours every single night for 15 months wasn’t any less horrible than it had been with our first, this time we were prepared. Eliminating the element of surprise and all hope of ever sleeping again does help you to pull yourself together and make the best out of your situation.
The second time around, I decided to put those miserable hours of the night to good use. With the inspiration I got from my 4 year old and my recent discovery that he was a Highly Sensitive Child, the chair I spent the nights on with my baby became my office, and my iPhone my computer. I did research and learned as much as I could. I looked for other parents who needed answers. I started to write a series of children’s books that sensitive children could relate to and would help to inspire them. And that was when I decided to start my blog, Sensitive and Extraordinary Kids, to try and spread awareness, reaching out to parents who are where we once were, and letting caregivers and teachers know that high sensitivity is in fact “a thing”.
Although I may not have changed the world the way I thought I would in my hysterical sleep-deprived state, every time I receive a message from a parent who found comfort in our stories, I feel like I did. For the first time in my life, besides being a mother to my children, I feel like I am finally doing what I need to be doing.“