Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Identical awakenings: shared DNA at work?

I've always believed that shared DNA would have little or no influence on whether Matthew and Jonathan slept through the night. Overall, yes, it would make sense that biology would dictate how much sleep they need and about when they might tire.
But disruptions in sleep patterns are most often caused by dreams, right?
Experience influences dreams and, shared DNA does not always equal shared experiences.
Matthew and Jonathan are often together, but the slightest distractions -- from physical positioning to hunger to whether they might have to pee at the time -- can shape experiences differently for each child. They take in different things depending on how closely they are paying attention, which senses they are using and the perspective from which they see things.
Jonathan and Matthew have had three and a half years worth of differentiation.
That seems like a lot.
But something happened last night that made me question my theory, and it's not the first time.
Matthew woke up at about 3 a.m. He wasn't upset or worried. He was just awake. He used the bathroom and I took him back to bed, where we curled up together for about 45 minutes. Finally, I tip-toed out of his room, believing he was asleep.
About an hour later, I spied a young figure at the foot of our bed, I pulled him into bed with me, believing it was Matthew again. He'd awoken the same way: no crying, no worries, just awake. I was tired and he just wasn't crashing, so after a few minutes, my husband took him back to his room, where he realized Matthew's bed was occupied.
This was Jonathan.
About 45 minutes after he awoke, Jonathan was again asleep.
Just like Matthew.
Matthew and Jonathan are good sleepers. They always have been. They go down hard and they wake up early, but they sleep like rocks through the night. The few times they have awoken, however, (aside from those moments when they've wet their beds), their awakenings have been so similar in nature that I've found it almost eery.
If one awakens with a particular cry, the other will awaken with that exact same cry an hour so later -- close enough to his twin that we can compare the awakenings, but far enough apart that we can be sure one did not awaken the other.
If one awakens with no cry, the other will soon awaken the same way. And it seems that it takes about the same time and effort to get him back to sleep. Looking back, I don't recall that they have ever awakened differently unless one was sick or had the wet his bed.
I've tried to attribute these common awakenings to coincidence.
Maybe one twin tossed and turned in his sleep, triggering frightening dreams in the other.
Maybe one twin's awakening caused the others.
But their awakenings are too far apart to persuade me.
And it's happened far too many times.
I don't believe this is evidence of some kind of twin telepathy, but I have come to believe that brain chemistry strongly influences sleep patterns, especially in children . When our older kids woke up at odd hours, I initially attributed it to stress, bad dreams or other external influences.
But in retrospect, it seems that there was almost always a biological cause. Our oldest son suffered night terrors as a toddler, which are caused by mini seizures. I don't recall him waking up during the night much after those passed.
Our daughter had horrible, morbid dreams several times a night until she was diagnosed with OCD, which is caused by an anxiety-triggered chemical imbalance. Once she was treated with medication that stabilized those chemicals, she slept beautifully and still does.
As adults, we often have trouble sleeping because of external stresses. We're thinking about work, relationships, money, all kinds of things as we struggle to sleep and we often have trouble shutting those thoughts out. All that stress prevents us from producing the hormones and chemicals that override our worries and help us crash for the night.
At three years old, Jonathan and Matthew don't have many of those external worries.
And even if they did, what are the chances that their stresses are similar enough to cause them to awaken the same way on the same nights? No, I have to believe that it's their shared DNA that is behind their awakenings. Some sort of chemical change in brain pattern is occurring almost simultaneously.
And that makes me wonder about the way we approach childhood sleep disruptions as a society.
Perhaps too often biology is overlooked.
So often, I hear parents say that their children need to "get over it" when they frequently awaken during the night. They take the toughlove approach, simply sending them back to bed in hopes that they will get through this phase if no one pays them heed.
Matthew and Jonathan do not have sleep issues.
They rarely awaken.
But, the pattern I have observed when they do wake up during the night is strong evidence that some kids, perhaps many kids, can't help themselves.
Maybe some children need more than toughlove.
Maybe, more often than not, the awakenings that parents attribute to bad dreams, clinginess or a need for attention are really biology at work.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

When dressing identical twins alike is a bad idea

I have to laugh when people ask whether we ever dress Matthew and Jonathan alike.
As babies, they peed and pooped through so many clothes that we'd have needed at least four sets of all outfits to keep them in matching clothes for more than an hour or two. Identical outfits were not practical anyway, especially in the winter when socks covered Jonathan's painted toenails.
It was hard enough to tell them apart.
Why would we want to make it harder?
By the time the boys were 16 months old, they had distinct color preferences and they had learned to exert those preferences loudly and strongly. Matthew wore yellow. Jonathan wore orange. Matthew wore pants. Jonathan wore shorts.
Efforts to dress them in matching clothes were met with fury.
Now, at 3.5 years old, the boys share few clothes. For the most part, they have each claimed certain shirts, pants, shorts, socks and jackets. On occasion, they will wear the same jackets or the same color shirt, but that's where it ends.
For the most part, it matters not to me whether others dress their identical twins alike. It's fairly harmless when are young and most kids will protest if they don't like it as they age. By the teen years, many identical twins choose to dress alike anyway.
But there are times, I have learned, when dressing identical twins in identical clothing is simply a bad idea.

Playgrounds, pools, and public spaces:
I once bought matching swim trunks for Matthew and Jonathan and took them to the toddler pool at the YMCA. What a nightmare. Though the pool is small and a lifeguard is always on duty, it would have been easy for active children like my own to walk out the gate with another family.
From even a short distance, it was impossible to tell the boys apart with their naked chests and matching trunks. I was always on edge, making sure I could see both at the same time. It must have been at least as difficult for the lifeguard.
I had the same experience at a playground once when they wore matching tops. Though their shorts were different, they were close in color. Someone could easily have snatched one up, or one twin could have run off to the parking lot, and it would have taken me too much precious time to notice.
At pools, on playgrounds and in public spaces, it can dangerous to dress twins alike.

When you don't want attention:
This is the one that irks the most. All infant twins will be ogled. That's a fact that parents must accept. They are just far too adorable to resist when they are together in their strollers with their soft skin, tiny cries and pink cheeks. It's best to accept it and build ogle time into our schedules.
Once twins ditch the strollers though, ogling-related disruptions should be greatly reduced. Jonathan and Matthew are always taking off in different directions. Unless they are standing together, it can be difficult to tell whether they are even brothers, so much for twins.
Yet I see it, hear it and read it all the time: moms of toddlers and older twins complaining that they were "stopped once again" by curious strangers in malls, grocery stores and restaurant. They curse the strangers and expound upon the "rudeness" of some people.
Just about every time, however, further questioning reveals that the twins were dressed alike. The only reason to dress identical twins alike is for the attention. If parents do not want the attention, they should not dress their twins alike.
It's that simple.

When the twins say "No."
This should be a no-brainer.

Our boys surprise me at every turn.
So it's possible that despite their firm convictions about clothing, they will someday beg me for matching jeans, t-shirts and sneakers as we are shopping. If they do, I will relent because it really should be up to them from now on, except in those situations where it might be dangerous.
I might even think it's cute.
I do not judge those who dress their twins alike.
It can be fun.
But, I admit, I do judge those who do not use common sense.
So please, when you dress your identical twins, just use common sense.
And then, when you are out and about and I see them pass by in matching outfits, I will be among those who grin and comment on how adorable they are. I might even stop you. Because twins do that to people. And making people smile, making them happy, is a good thing.