We have another guest post on the blog today! Please welcome Canadian father, Jason McNaught, who is a father to a three-year-old ninja-in-training, and loves every minute of it. In May, he will publish the first issue of The New Hip, an Ottawa-based lifestyle magazine for older adults. TheNewHip.com
My wife and I knew something was wrong from the beginning. Tate hardly ever slept. He would wake up screaming almost every hour. I’d be at wit’s end, bouncing him on a ball, singing whatever came into my head (lots of times it was Amazing Grace for some reason). Nothing ever seemed to work, except for lying on his Mom’s chest when she was propped up by a couple of pillows.
We took some heat from those close to us about him always sleeping in our bed. After a few months, we got rid of the crib because we never used it.
It was a fluke, after a year of living life in a zombie-like haze, we discovered there actually was something wrong with Tate. My wife went to feed him in front of the doctor, and as soon as he got a mouthful of nipple he started to grunt like a suckling piglet. Turns out, he was struggling to breathe, not being cute.
When the doctor heard the noise, her eyebrow raised and she asked to look inside his mouth. “That’s not normal,” she said flatly.
Her diagnosis was quick, primarily because when she tried to look down Tate’s throat, her light didn’t travel very far. His tonsils were the size of a grown man’s … even when he wasn’t trying to feed, he was struggling to breathe.
An MRI, scheduled shortly after, confirmed what the doctor had suspected: Tate had sleep apnea. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just his tonsils that were causing problems. His adenoids were also abnormally large, and his nasal passages were narrower than normal.
The MRI was something else. Seeing your baby shoved into a clear plastic tube to keep him from moving, screaming bloody murder, struggling with all his might to free himself, not even remotely understanding why he was trapped there, why his parents weren’t responding to his cries for help … and then … being gently shoved into a larger tube, away from his parents, to the sound of strange, intermittent whirring.
Watching that is torture. At least, for my wife it was. I wasn’t there. It caught her off-guard. My wife and I both had MRIs before, and we knew it was painless. But then again, we’d never considered that, for Tate, it might be our equivalent of being abducted by aliens.
For those who aren’t sure what sleep apnea is, I really didn’t know a lot about it either. In fact, the extent of my knowledge was that it affected people who were obese and they commonly wore very uncomfortable masks to sleep. Formally, the Mayo Clinic defines Sleep Apnea as “a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts.”
I had no idea babies could have sleep apnea, and that was part of the reason it took us sooo long to get help. Just think about what happens when you tell another parent that your baby isn’t getting a lot of sleep at night. “Oh, yeah. I’ve been there,” is what you’ll get in response to that. You’ll never hear: “Your child isn’t sleeping at night? You need to take them to the hospital and get them checked out.”
It’s uncomfortable to think that, every time we put Tate onto his back after falling asleep in our arms, we were unknowingly allowing him to be choked by his own body. But that’s exactly what was happening. As soon as he’d relax, his tonsils and adenoids (a mass of soft tissue behind the nasal cavity) would close up his windpipe and he’d stop breathing. That was why he kept waking up screaming.
Fixing Tate’s sleep apnea was relatively straightforward, but not as fast as we had hoped. Even before seeing an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist, we could have guessed that Tate would need surgery to remove his adenoids and tonsils, but the bad news was that, because he was so young, they couldn’t remove them both at once. The risk of swelling and other complications was too high.
Between the first surgery to remove his adenoids removed, and the second surgery to remove his tonsils, we waited approximately a year. During that time, Tate’s breathing — although it showed initial improvement with the removal of his tonsils — became progressively worse.
A few months before the removal of his tonsils, we were back at the doctor again. A quick examination revealed that were blocking 70% of his airway. Although we had moved him into his own bed at that point (at least, he started the night there), we would lie awake and listen to him subconsciously fight to get air. It was noisy … and frightening.
After Tate’s second surgery, his life improved dramatically. Without sleep, parts of his development had been slow. His hair was thin, he hadn’t been able to gain weight, and his eyes had permanent dark circles, almost like a raccoon’s. Tate had been known secretly among our family as “Rage Baby”. My wife was often the only person that could console him. He spent parts of the day absolutely hysterical — crying and screaming for no apparent reason.
Three weeks after the removal of his tonsils, his hair began to grow thicker, he put on a little weight, and finally … he started to sleep through most of the night, and those dark circles faded away. His rage also subsided, although not completely. Perhaps our son was born a bit of a curmudgeon. We’re still figuring that one out.
The best lesson I can teach about this experience is to trust your instincts as a parent. Our doctor told us that, had we been absolutely steadfast in our resolve to have him sleep in his crib, on his back, there was a chance that he might have stopped breathing … and not woken up.
Fortunately, my wife resisted the gentle prodding from friends and family to let him “cry it out” in that crib, and instead stuck to the only thing she found to work: propping herself up on a few pillows and putting Tate on her chest. That decision, said our doctor, was the one thing that might have saved his life. The sound of her slow, steady breath triggered his brain to breathe too, and that semi-upright position kept his airway open.
Finally, if you get the feeling that something with your child just isn’t right, even if it is as common as not sleeping, make an appointment with your doctor and talk to them. Put aside the feelings about wasting their time, because you are not a healthcare expert. If you think something is wrong with your child, let a doctor make the final call. Better you think you’re crazy than to find out you weren’t after the fact.