by Hanna Vock
Again and again it is reported, sometimes disputed by experts, yet it cannot be denied:
Many gifted children, even as babies, sleep very little.
A baby, of course, cannot be safely determined gifted. This can only be assessed at a later point in life. However, quite a few parents who have raised several gifted children do report that their children, even as babies, needed remarkably little sleep. Families in which giftedness has been running in the family over generations say the same, too.
I do not want to talk of giftedness in connection with babies, this wouldn’t be correct, since giftedness cannot be measured at such early age. I will talk about „very alert children“, though. A number of these very alert children, whom I have known or whom I was told about, were later diagnosed to be of high ability.
Children who appear rather astute (one midwife about a child of 2 weeks: „That child really is quite astute!”), oftentimes are “sleep-nots” [“Wenigschläfer”]. A young family will often be rather challenged by such a “sleep-not”.
… in a nutshell …
Children who are later diagnosed gifted, often sleep considerably less than other children. They also often find it hard to wind down from their habitually high level of activity and alertness and settle towards sleep mode. This is a great burden for the parents and often lets them doubt their child-rearing skills.
This article tries to shed some light on the underlying reasons and to provide some relief.
Picture this: On a day the child, 10 months of age, wakes up at 7 o’clock and is immediately wide awake and highly active, it sleeps for half an hour around noon, shows some signs of fatigue at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon but doesn’t fall asleep and furiously fights all attempts to lay it to bed or to cradle it into sleep. At 6 o’clock it falls asleep in its carriage and is back alive and kicking after one hour – remaining in this state until 11 o’clock at night. The child is playing, physically active and incessantly searching for physical and vocal communication with the parents or anybody else who is around. Shortly before 11 o’clock at night it goes to sleep (autonomously). It sleeps deeply, interrupted only by an intensely taken meal from the baby bottle, until 8 o’clock the next morning.
Almost every babysitter – accustomed to sitting a sleeping child and being able to do some reading or watch TV – will sooner than later take to flight.
The parents, however, stay and try out all the good pieces of advice they can get and that promise a timely retirement in the evening. But all the good advice, as for example in the book „Jedes Kind kann schlafen lernen“ [Every Child Can Learn to Sleep] is no good after all, and why is that?
Are these parents incompetent? Is their daily routine, in spite of all efforts to establish some peace and quiet, still too fussy or does their child simply need less sleep and rest than other children do?
I remember myself as a young mother of a baby standing by the window of our nursery and enviously (yes, with great envy at the time) looking across to the apartment opposite ours where at 7 o’clock in the evening the nursery’s shades were pulled down. The child, who lived there, was the same age as mine and the shades were shut from 7 in the evening until 7 in the morning straight, and at least for two hours during the afternoon!!! And every day so.
Upon asking the neighbour how she did it, she said with a very well-rested expression: “Well, as soon as the shades are down he will sleep.”
This child reliably granted its parents 14 hours of peace and quiet and would only spend 10 hours a day awake; mine in contrast, even as a toddler, spent 14-15 out of the 24 hours wide awake and slept only 9-10 hours. Anybody who has lived together with small children will understand what an enormous difference that makes.
Naturally, at first I sought the blame for our child’s habit of sleeping so little and not wanting to sleep at the “usual times” in our incompetence as parents. Only after all efforts which were successful with other children had proved to be of no use when it came to our child, I let go of the false hypothesis and realised that the human need for sleep may differ greatly between individuals. And I could have known better all along. The grand-father, a successful physicist, had told us that as an adult he had always got by with no more than 4-5 hours of sleep and had still always maintained good health. Something that seems surreal to us “long-sleepers”.
“Sleep-nots” who are later diagnosed as gifted frequently confront their parents with these four problems:
The parents are worried about their child’s health.
They miss the necessary time and peace for themselves and to devote to possible other children in the family.
They doubt their own parenting competence.
Everybody around them doubts their parenting competence, too.
And which are the problems the child itself is faced with?
At first we have to figure out why the small child sleeps so much less than other children. We will rule out all possible adverse circumstances (too much unrest around it, too many stimuli, too much irregularity in daily routines). If so, what remains as a possible cause?
The following considerations pertain to healthy children who seem resistant to all measures recommended for children who won’t sleep and who are usually wide awake and alert during waking times.
Besides: Certainly not all gifted children (and adults for that matter) are “sleep-nots”, some do sleep a lot and enjoy doing so.
A brain, which works very effectively, processing and demanding for many stimuli will be wide awake and alert for the greatest part of its waking time. Children with such brains will often appear extraordinarily enthusiastic and universally interested.
Such alert toddlers frequently have not only shortened sleeping periods but also the periods where they doze off and their level of activity is lowered are shorter. Such children will, for example, rarely just sit in their carriage drowsing away, they want to pick up on everything and they get grumpy if their surroundings do not provide enough stimuli.
With regard to all these observations I would like to propose two theses:
Some gifted children are true “sleep-nots”. They need little sleep, maybe because their brains are also very effective in their recreational functions. There are many reports of children who will be very alert during waking times and by the same token go to sleep deeply and reliably, continuing to sleep even if they are being carried from the car to the house or while their diapers are being changed and their siblings are raising hell right next to them. What a God-given sleep!
Thesis 2 .
Some of these alert children find it hard to wind down from wake to sleep, even when they are very tired and could really use some sleep.
I would imagine it much harder to change from a very alert state to sleep than from a relatively subdued level of activity and state of mind.
Here such measures as quiet, darkness, cool room temperature, cradling and singing may be helpful – but only if the brain of that child is ready and willing to subdue its activity.
Presumably both causes may frequently coincide.
As to thesis 2: Stimuli cause states of neurological excitation. As according to the nature of these stimuli different regions of the brain will be aroused. The smaller a child the further these stimuli travel throughout the brain and the less reliably the corresponding inhibitive neurological processes kick in.
Now, this might tempt one to take the child to less stimulating surroundings at times during the day or at least in the evening – and thereby inevitably frustrate the child, make it unhappy – and if the child disposes of hot temper and assertiveness even drive it into a rage which will then be impossible to control by any permitted means of child-rearing…
It happens to be a constituent feature of giftedness that there is high learning motivation, a great craving for the new, a great openness for new experiences, a great persistence in pursuing individual (cognitive) aims.
This can by no means be curbed, neither externally nor internally. These needs scream to be met, even at the cost of temporary overstrain of the own resources, power and nerves or those of everybody else.
Allow us a short detour to take a look at some grown-up gifted people: Many of them continue to do the same thing throughout their adult lives. In spite of all their smartness they still go to their limits – their brain simply works that way, as if saying:
“As long as there is as much as a spark of power left I won’t be sleeping away this interesting world! I won’t put my important project to rest, let alone give up!”
This is why it appears pointless to me to try and change this in the very young and possibly gifted children. Such recurring attempts would constitute an early source of the feeling:
They just don’t understand me. They don’t want me the way I am.
(Am I really such a great burden to them, just because I am the way I am?)
High excitability of processes in the central nervous system would accordingly be a frequently occurring feature of high ability, it can be considered the basis for high (learning-) motivation, which is also pivotal to our understanding and definition of giftedness.
High excitability may also occur in other, pathological contexts. And problems with falling asleep may certainly also be caused by adverse circumstances.
The very alert infant and the very alert toddler are facing the comparably difficult task of dimming their brain activity from a high level of arousal way down to sleep mode.
They often don’t manage to do so without help. That is how they – more so than other children ask for – are carried around, pushed around in their carriage or taken along in the car, just so they may come to rest. All this is, of course, rather strenuous for the person looking after the child, and others are often watching this with distrust. Still the parents will most of the time have the safe feeling that their children need this and they accept the extra effort with patience. To the great benefit of these children.
The concept of high excitability of the central nervous system corresponds to Dabrowski’s concept of “overexcitabilities” (OEs), to be found in Webb a.o., S. 21-26 Recommended Reading
Dabrowski recognises several kinds of excitability, for example the psychomotor OE, which he also sees related to a reduced need for sleep in early childhood.
More about Dabrowski’s OEs: High Sensitivity (according to Dabrowski)
If you want to read Dabrowski in the English original:
Dabrowski, K.: Positive Desintegration. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1964.
Maybe this rather positive view of an extremely low need for sleep is apt to help parents bear the strains and the relinquishment of rest and time for themselves with a little more ease and also to face everybody else with more self-confidence and serenity.
It may be all about no more than a short period of time, in which it might be wise to temporarily surrender some dearly held habits (the prime time movie, the book, the evening sex, the talk with your partner or friends, …) to a new highly interesting hobby: a time dedicated to playing with the alert child.
Here also, it appears sensible to look out for the like-minded. After all there are more “sleep-not” children who are wide awake up until 10 or 11 o’clock at night and are longing for playmates. What a joy if even as toddlers they find these in other toddlers and the parents are released further and further as the children grow older.
Once the children have become accustomed to this, and even to having their friend stay overnight, on each occasion at least one parent party has the evening off.
Try to minimize frustration and anger and maximize your joy with your alert child.
To all kindergarten teachers:
They really do exist, the children who are up and awake late into the evening and therefore like to sleep in the next morning until 8 o’clock or longer (in order to have at least 10 of the 24 hours to sleep). Those parents who have to get to work in the morning soon learn to wake their children up; those who don’t, often avoid this and then labour to get to kindergarten in time.
With all sympathy: It is but a normal social requirement which all children and parents are faced with:
Kindergarten needs punctual parents and children, even if it’s hard.
Even if taking the positive view on high excitability and little need for sleep: it remains a demanding developmental challenge, despite all enthusiasm, to find the right balance between activity and rest.
Grown-up gifted people often wish to schedule their working times freely. While many people would tend to accomplish less if not working under regulation of working hours and supervision, many gifted people have it just the other way: once they have found the appropriate work or challenge they very much motivate themselves and prefer to decide autonomously when to work and when to rest. Only then do they manage to make full use of their potentials.
Even small children have to find a balance between complying with schedules and following their own rhythms of activity, which for gifted children are even more out of alignment. They have to learn to take breaks within the given framework.
Just how hard they find this, shows when very alert babies literally play off their limits of fatigue and exhaustion with their high excitability and their motivation.
However long they like to play in the evening or in the morning – if doing so joyfully and in a focussed manner – they are on the positive side of the “sleep-nots”, living out their high energy potential. There are some children who do this regularly in the very early morning hours, at 5 or 6 o’clock, which isn’t necessarily delightful for the rest of the family.
A sure sign that it is time to “wind down” is when concentration fades visibly and nothing seems to be right anymore and the good spirits drown in fatigue, grouching and whining. Excitation is still high but power is down. Trying to circumvent this state by reducing stimuli in advance has proved to be ineffective. Many parents and children have come to understand that these phases have to be lived through. They are, so to say, the price for high sensitivity and great inquisitiveness into the world.
„Sleeping is boring. Sleeping lasts sooo long“..“ (3;8)
„I can’t keep my eyes shut that long.“ – Why not?“ – „They hurt from it.“ (3;8 years.)
Sleeping is out of the question. Iris is at 21:30 o’clock still very, very chipper: „I am day and night active“. (4;2 years.)
Iris asks in the evening when she falls asleep when tomorrow is finally here.
„I cannot fall asleep. I must think of something beautiful and then again of something stupid and then again of something beautiful, then again of something stupid. I am already quite confused.“ (4;6 years.)
Iris in bed at night: „How does sleeping go?“ I answer her that she should close her eyes and stop thinking. Iris: „I’ve always complained with my head, but he thinks and thinks.“ (4;8 years.)
Having said all this, I would like to emphasize once more that not all gifted children are troubled by the problem of regulating their phases of activity and rest (and the “winding down”-matter). Therefore this problem does not serve as a criterion for giftedness – it just so happens that it coincides rather frequently with giftedness. There are some gifted children with strong nerves who manage to self-regulate well in accordance to regular schedules and without any disturbances or troubles.
Everything written here is based on experience. Unfortunately I am not aware of any scientific studies, which have been conducted methodically correctly and that deal with the problem of rest/activity-regulation of the gifted. If anybody knows of pertinent literature, I would gratefully appreciate any hint.
Date of publication in German: January 6 th , 2009
This article has been published in our manual for over three months now. Shortly after publication I received a recommendation for this book:
Anna Wahlgren: “Das Durchschlaf Buch. Die sanfte Schlafkur für dein Baby.”
Beltz Verlag 2008.
English Title: “A Good Night’s Sleep.” – Subtitle: This Is How You Can Truly Help Your Baby Sleep Through The Night.
In the past three months some parents I know personally have tested the book and the methods recommended therein on their children. The youngest two children were 4 months old, one child was 6 months old, one 8 months, one 12 months and one child was 2 years and 2 months. All of them had great difficulties with falling asleep and sleeping through the night without interruptions.
The results were encouraging: except for one of the 4 months old children it worked for all children. They go to sleep easily, sleep through the night, they are more balanced; they sleep in different surroundings and they will let their mothers, fathers, grand-parents and babysitters put them to bed. They sleep in their own beds and their parents get to take a breath and recreate.
The author herself relates similar experiences also with regard to much older children. Certainly for the very small children I have seen it work. The method appears plausible and well-founded, that is why I am recommending the book.
Ja, mein Kind?
Wenn ihr mich zum Abend rüde
in mein Bett steckt, soll ich müde
und erschöpft sein und bin´s nicht;
während ich im Dunkeln liege,
sehe ich: Bei euch brennt Licht.
gerne angst- und kinderlos?
Augen zu jetzt!<
Authorized by author:
Aus: Thomas Gsella, Papa-a? Ja, mein Kind?
Siehe Literaturverzeichnis .
rudely, but I’m not tired yet,
not exhausted either;
when I’m lying there in tears,
I see: your night is brighter.
without a child, without a fright?
Eyes closed now!<
From: Thomas Gsella, Papa-a? Ja, mein Kind?
See Recommended Reading .
Copyright © Hanna Vock 2009, see Imprint .