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When we got home from China with our newly adopted two-year-old son and our three-year-old daughter in November, the hardest, most heart-wrenching and exhausting part of the adoption process was just beginning.
I can’t explain the relief I felt as we settled into our bed that first night at home. We had landed at our home airport at 11pm after 29 hours of driving to the airport, flying from Guangzhou to Beijing, a five-hour lay-over, flying Beijing to Chicago (an hour on the tarmac plus 14 hours in the air), customs and immigration in Chicago, and then (finally) flying home to Pittsburgh. We walked into our house, utterly exhausted and sick of traveling, at 2am. The kids were both asleep in their beds by 2:30, and I prayed that we were starting our new “normal.”
Thank God that what followed in the next three weeks was not our new normal.
What followed, my dear friends, was hell.
Jet lag was the main culprit, but, at the time, I thought that the problem was me, that I wasn’t a good mother, that I wasn’t even a good person. It felt like I had no patience, no compassion, no empathy. I knew that the changes would be hard and big and life-altering… but I just didn’t know what that would feel like physically, spiritually, emotionally.
It’s the difference between someone describing being burned and actually dunking your arm into a pot of molten lead.
There was screaming. Oh, so much screaming.
Theo would wake every hour or so, screaming in terror—sweating, kicking, thrashing, drooling, moaning, shrieking terror. His screaming would wake Evie, who joined in with her own sad, confused wailing. Theo’s crying would last for hours sometimes, with no breaks. He screamed if I held him, rocked him, stroked his hair, spoke sweet nothings to him in Chinese and English, wrapped him in blankets… Nothing would soothe him. He cried out for his momma, and he didn’t mean me. He screamed even louder if Joel attempted to approach, address him, or soothe him.
There were diaper failures. There was drooling, gagging, and vomiting. There was biting, scratching, hitting, head butting, kicking. There was hysterical shrieking so loud and horrifying that it made the hairs on my neck stand up.
On the third night, I tripped in the darkness, accidentally kicked the foot of the crib as I ran for a towel to mop up an expanding puddle of urine on the nursery floor, and broke one of my toes. (Three months later, it still aches, a reminder to me of how close we are to those first days, even if it feels like a lifetime ago.)
It was, in no uncertain terms, a disaster.
Here’s how we survived:
1. White noise machine
Both in China and once we had returned, we played white noise in the bedroom. It helped to cut down on ambient noise waking the kids (and us), and it allowed Evie and Joel to get a bit more sleep after I took Theo and his screaming out of the nursery to other parts of the house.
At home, we have a Marpac Natural White Noise Sound Machine. In China, we simply purchased a recording of an electric fan and played in on a loop from our tablet or phone during naps or at night.
2. Foam ear plugs
Some people can handle a lot of sound. I am not one of those people. When Theo would get to his extended, high-pitched screaming fits, I would within moments get a pounding headache. The headaches made it hard to hold him and rock him; all I wanted to do was take a handful of ibuprofen and put a pillow over my head.
With that not being an option, I resorted to using foam ear plugs to help bring the volume down to a bearable level. Friends, that saved my sanity.
Without the ear plugs, I could barely stand to have him on my lap while he screamed. With the ear plugs, I could hold him, rock him, comfort him, without the headaches and with a LOT more compassion.
I didn’t wear the ear plugs to drown out his crying; I still attended to him every time he needed reassurance. I would just keep them beside my bed and put them in while I made my way to scoop him up.
3. Premixed congee/milk drink to fill hungry middle-of-the-night belly
We only needed this midnight snack two or three times in the first week, while Theo adjusted to the time change. He struggled (and still sometimes struggles) with trauma-related feeding issues, so having a cup ready to go with a thin rice congee made it easier to soothe his desperate hunger. He didn’t have to watch me with increasing panic as I got things out of the fridge and cabinets, mixed, poured, heated, etc.
I would just grab the cup, stick it in the microwave for 15 seconds, and hand it to him.
4. Melatonin Supplements
Just skip this section if herbal supplements are not your thing. If you take this advice, and it goes horribly wrong… please keep in mind that you’re reading advice from a graphic designer, not a doctor.
Before we headed to China, I did extensive
Googling research about how to help toddlers to handle a long flight and jet lag. Many of the articles, blogs, and sites recommended giving your kids something to help them sleep—cold/allergy medicine, melatonin, chamomile (yes, like the tea), and other supplements.
Melatonin is the hormone that your body secretes naturally to make you feel sleepy. You can read more about melatonin and how it works here.
I ended up ordering two kinds of melatonin supplement tablets—one for adults and one specially made for kids. The adult tablet we got contains 3mg of melatonin (and other supplements), while the version for kids contained 2mg of chamomile and 0.5mg of melatonin.
I tested both versions on myself before giving any to Joel or the kids.
I found that the 3mg melatonin made me feel just sleepy enough to get over a bit of caffeine imbibed too late in an evening, but not as “holy cow, my brain isn’t working anymore” sleepy as a drug like Tylenol PM or ZzzQuil (which use the antihistamine diphenhydramine to induce sleepiness). Another plus: on the melatonin supplement, I didn’t have that less-than-pleasant “medicine wearing off” feeling in the morning or in the middle of the night. I was also still easily able to hear the kids and wake up immediately.
I ended up cutting the kids’ pills in half, and they still worked just fine. Both kiddos responded in the same way—initial fussiness as they got sleepy and then sound sleep for several hours. I gave each child half the pill before bedtime and the second half some time in the middle of the night when they woke each other up with all the lovely screaming.
Evie has always had trouble falling asleep, so she loved the little pills. In fact, sometimes these days if she is having a hard night, she asks me for “a little pill in my mouth to help me sleep” or she’ll tell me, “I need some sleeping tone.” (We don’t have any supplements left, so now I just give her “sleepy potion” — a mug of warm water with cinnamon and honey. She says it makes her very sleepy right away. Ha! I love preschoolers.)
5. Separate bed away from anyone who might be disturbed
Theo slept just fine in China in the hotel-provided portable cribs, and we co-slept with Evie the entire time we were overseas. So, when we were back in our own house, Joel and I were oh, so ready to have our bed to ourselves.
We have a full-sized sofa bed in our living room, which we set up each night with sheets and pillows and blankets, ready for one or more inhabitants. Usually, one of the kids would wake up by 1 or 2 am (sometimes as early at 11pm) with the crying, triggering the other crying. We would usually end up with Joel and Evie in Evie’s twin bed or Joel and Evie in the master bedroom… and Theo and me in the living room on the sofa bed.
The living room bed worked pretty well for us. It put some space between Theo’s screaming and the other bedrooms, which meant that Joel and Evie could usually fall back to sleep pretty quickly (within an hour or so).
To be perfectly honest, I also appreciated having the sofa bed (as opposed to Joel and I both co-sleeping with him in the master bedroom) so that after Theo calmed down and dozed off, I could still have a bit my own space in the bed… after all the thrashing and wailing, I was SO ready to have no one touching me.
Which brings me to the next thing…
6. Headphones to go with iPad and Netflix
Listening to your child or children scream in panic for an hour or two can really get your adrenaline pumping. There were several nights that I found myself staring at the ceiling, begging sleep to reclaim me, while Theo slept (finally) peacefully at my side.
When I found that the “win the child sleep game” adrenaline prevented me from relaxing back into sleep, particularly if it was after 4am, I would break out the iPad, pop in my headphones, and watch an episode of a favorite show or part of a movie. It was a tiny bit of peace, all to myself, just when I needed it. After watching an episode of Scrubs or a bit of Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 BBC version, obv), I would usually be relaxed enough to catch a few minutes of sleep until the next round of crying and/or the morning.
7. Clean diaper and change of clothes for everyone
We needed most of this every night of the first week. It was extremely helpful to have it all laid out, ready to use, rather than having to dig in the drawers in the dark to find a pair of pants after being peed on.
I also recommend a towel or two within arm’s reach, in the hopes that I can save you a broken toe. If a broken toe does happen… buddy-tape it, my friend, because there’s nothing you can do for a broken toe except look at it and shake your head sadly as it turns black.
8. Black-out curtains
Sleeping in a dark room is scientifically proven to improve the quality of your sleep. When you are fighting jet lag, your body is working overtime to compensate for the day/night confusion. We added blackout curtains to our bedrooms to help keep the light of passing car headlamps, street lamps, and early morning sun from triggering our bodies to wake us up randomly throughout the night or at sunrise.
I almost purchased an extra set of the blackout curtains for the living room since Theo and I were sleeping out there most nights, but I ended up sticking it out until he was able to get back to sleep in his crib with minimal rocking/patting/comforting (about two or three weeks) where it was already pitch black.
These curtains (in black) are my favorite blackout curtains, and I’ve tried a few different kinds. They are soft, not crinkly, and they actually make it almost completely dark in the room, even in the middle of the day. They are bit pricey, but totally worth it to me if they help at all.
9. Time and Patience
Bleh. Yep, it takes time. I honestly worried that I would not survive the three weeks it took for us to make it through the jet lag. I was plagued by feelings of inadequacy, fear, anger, regret, shame, and… if I’m being really honest here… some very dark, suicidal crap.
During week one, I remember thinking that I definitely wasn’t going to kill myself but that I was beginning to hope that I would be the victim of a random act of violence or some kind of accident. I was desperate to escape from the seemingly endless sleeplessness, the shock of our new family situation, the hours of crying and useless attempts comforting, and the feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and shame.
It was not a good place.
Fortunately, it didn’t last for long for us. Once we all started getting back into a more regular sleep pattern, the clouds began to dissipate. The difference that getting five hours of sleep (without anyone screaming) was shocking. The darkest part of the depression I experienced lasted from the middle of our second week in China through the third week at home. It lingered a bit through month two, and, by the middle of month three, I rarely experience the depth of emotional darkness and spiritual heaviness that plagued those first weeks.
More about that later.
Learn about the realities of Post-Adoption Depression Syndrome (PADS) »
I’d list this as number one, but, after reading all of these other things, you may have already forgotten I’d mentioned it.
You have to take all of the stress, fear, anger, frustration, and sleep-deprivation to the Lord. Over and over and over. And over.
I was sure that I would never survive it. But I did.
You will too.
Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.
Psalm 55:22 ESV
Got any other bright ideas or tips for dealing with jet lag in traumatized toddlers? Post ’em in the comments!
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