Toddler Sleep Inertia

My in-laws brought the boys home yesterday afternoon. My toddler had fallen asleep in the car, like he often does on the 40-minute drive from their house to ours. He usually wakes up in our driveway disoriented and tantrum-prone. But yesterday was the worst I’d ever seen him.

He screamed for thirty minutes, not quite awake but clearly miserable. First his grandma tried sitting with him. Then I tried sitting with him. Then I carried him to his bed and sat outside the door, listening to his screams echo from the bedroom. He’d calm down for a few seconds before screaming again, each time sending a new wave of adrenaline crashing against my chest.

Was he having a tantrum? He didn’t seem angry. He wasn’t misbehaving. He was just inconsolable and unresponsive, and he fought my every attempt to comfort him.

I thought: This is the beginning. This is the beginning of his panic attacks and depression and suicidal tendencies, and I am going to lose him because I don’t know what to do. 

My eyes landed on the Toy Story DVD we’d checked out from the library the evening before. Distraction. Yes. Try distraction.

I had my husband carry our son downstairs again. We wrapped him in his favorite monkey blankie and laid him in front of the TV. His screams dissolved into sniffles as I fast-forwarded through the previews.

“There’s Cirinda’s castle,” he said, voice hoarse.

He was extra sweet that evening, pushing his trains around the floor, making little observations that bordered on apologies.

“I was upset when I got home today. I was upset then but I’m not anymore.”

“That’s good to hear. It can be hard for Mommy when you scream like that. I want to help you feel better but I don’t know how.”

“It can be hard on me when I scream like that, too.”

My husband, who’d been as freaked out as I was, seemed remarkably calm that night.

“Were you on Google?” I asked, already knowing the answer. “What was that we just went through?”

“Toddler sleep inertia. Fairly common, it says. They grow out of it.”  

I Googled the term myself, and read dozens of pages of parents describing exactly the same thing we’d all experienced.

“I saw one parent compare it to a movie-style demonic possession. Yes, I thought, that’s exactly the way to describe it!” (via StudioBrassy)

All that pent-up anxiety drained out of me. It wasn’t panic disorder or depression or psychosis. It wasn’t about me, or my mental health issues, or my child’s. It was just a sleep disturbance. And it was uncomfortable, but it went away.

This is what I tell myself about my own anxiety. It’s uncomfortable, but it goes away. It can be hard on you. Distraction helps.

I think I needed this lesson a lot more than my son. He lives in the moment. After twenty minutes of television, he had completely recovered. It took me the rest of the evening to realize that I’d been reeling ever since, and that most of the drama existed in my head.

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