Nodding Off

by Brian on June 15, 2007

in A Parent in Israel

In the recent Pixar movie Over the Hedge, R.J., a wily raccoon, accidentally awakens Vince a hibernating and very grumpy Grizzly bear while trying to steal from the Grizzly’s store of winter food. Vince immediately springs into classic Grizzly position, ready to impale and impair the unwelcome intruder. Bears, it seems, can go from 0-60 – from deep sleep to full alertness – nearly instantaneously.

Not so with nine-year-old boys, we recently discovered.

A few weeks ago, we were at a dinner party with friends who lived down the street from us. As the evening stretched on later than we expected, nine-year-old Aviv fell asleep on the couch. When it was time to go, we needed to wake him up, at least enough to walk the short distance home. He has long since grown too heavy to carry him over our shoulder like a baby.

Getting Aviv going proved harder than expected. Usually, we can rouse him to a groggy walking state fairly easily, but he must have been in a deeper state of REM sleep this time. We were unable to get any response from him at all. We raised an arm, it flopped to his side. We sat him up and he fell over.

And then all of a sudden, he started to scream at the top of his lungs. Was he in pain? Was he angry? We couldn’t tell.

“Does something hurt you, Aviv?” my wife Jody asked. Aviv just wailed.

Our concerned hosts had come over to see what was going on. “Does he need a doctor?” they asked. “Should we call someone in the neighborhood?”

I frankly didn’t know what to do. This had never happened before. We asked Aviv again what was bothering him.

“It’s my tummy,” he finally said. “It’s burning.”

My mind began to race. Maybe he had appendicitis, a sudden ulcer…or something. Why would a stomach burn?

As the crying continued for five minutes, then ten minutes without a break, Jody and I tried different approaches. Jody doled out compassion while I went more towards tough love.

“Come on, you can do this, you can get up, it’s just a short walk,” I cajoled. “You’ll feel better when you get into your own bed, you’re just tired.”

Just tired…that was it! I remembered learning something once that might apply to Aviv in this case. When a sleeper enters the deepest phase of REM sleep, he literally becomes paralyzed.

Apparently, the brain doesn’t shut off during sleep, but is just as active during dreaming as it is during waking. So the body actually goes into a state of “sleep paralysis” to keep the slumbering person from acting out his dreams and hurting himself by running down the stairs or trying to fly.

Getting woken up in the middle of sleep paralysis is “alarming,” according to the London Sleep Centre, and “children may have difficulty explaining these events (which) adds to the parents’ concern.”

It would probably also be unpleasant …the body might feel like it’s asleep and the burning sensation Aviv was experiencing might occur while the paralysis wore off, not unlike the tingling sensation when your foot falls asleep.  A half-asleep, confused nine-year-old might interpret it all as pain.

There was no way to test the theory and we still needed to get our screaming child home.

Our hosts found an old still somewhat usable stroller. The seat was ripped and one of the handles was bent half way back. It was a tight fit but we managed to cram Aviv into it and cart him down the street back to our house.

He cried all the way home, alerting the neighbors to what I’m sure seemed like a clear case of child abuse. Then when we finally got to our doorstep, something shifted. Aviv sat up in the stroller and his usual, cheerful voice magically returned.

“You know, I think I almost fell asleep on the couch,” he announced as if none of the past 20 minutes of parental hell had ever occurred.

Now fully awake, the pain seemed to have passed completely, confirming my diagnosis of probable sleep paralysis, but leaving us with few lessons to share.  

Which begs the question many a worried parent is undoubtedly asking at this point: that is, do I have any advice on what to do if this happens to you and your child? Unfortunately the answer is “no.”

There wasn’t really anything we could have done differently. In Aviv’s half-asleep/half-awake sleep paralyzed state, neither Jody’s compassionate touch nor my sterner approach would have calmed him down. Sitting and waiting it out wouldn’t have worked either – he’d no doubt have just fallen asleep again. About the only thing we could have done is let him cry it out, which is exactly what we did.

The best course of action: let your drowsy bear hibernate an extra week…or if that’s too long, at least let him sleep where he is…and pick him up in the morning.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: