High needs babies are a lot of work – but it isn’t your fault.
When pregnant with my first child, I got all of the unsolicited advice of normal first-time mothers. I was told to “sleep now” while I still had the free time. I was told to go out to dinner, go to movies and do all sorts of other social things that I would no longer have time to do once I faced the social death sentence of becoming a parent.
One mother of three told me I would never need to buy an alarm clock again because I would own a human one. I got the overwhelming feeling that I was potentially in over my head. I braced for the worst.
And then it really wasn’t so bad. Yes, I got less sleep. Yes, my daughter spit up on my shirt every time I changed it. Yes, every time I accidentally entered the wrong pin number at the gas pump I had to lug a cumbersome infant car seat in and stand in line to pay the cashier. But I still went out to dinner — a lot. My daughter was a good napper and slept through the night by two months. My human alarm clock woke me in time to start the work I needed to do from home every morning.
She liked bouncey seats, play mats, swings and just laying on her back in her crib, checking out the ceiling. Some mornings I did not even know she was awake because she never cried. People eagerly offered to babysit and I eagerly accepted. She loved other people — to the point that I once complained to a friend that I was not even sure she knew or cared that I was her mother. She was a “good baby,” as they say. An ideal one, at that. She’s still incredibly easy going and happy to entertain herself — with the exception of a few typical four-year-old meltdowns and inundating me with questions around the clock.
So this pregnancy, I mentally prepared a little differently than I had for my first. I was fully prepared to face more difficulties than I had with my oldest. I knew that adding a fourth child to a recently combined family was much more difficult than bringing home one baby. I anticipated resistance or acting out from the older three kids. I was ready for just about anything — except what I got.
A high needs baby.
But wait. Isn’t “high needs” the definition of a newborn? It is, it is. But Dr. William Sears coined the term “high needs babies” for a special brand of little ones that must constantly be held, constantly be “bounced” or walked around, eat around the clock, refuse to self-soothe, reject pacifiers and bottles, hate to be cuddled — and the list goes on.
In my case, I have a baby with all of those characteristics that also hates rides in the car, rides in the stroller and being held in a sling or wrap. She wants to be held in the arms of her parents, and an occasional non-parent. If there is a position she does not like to be held in, she kicks and fusses until you adjust her to a position that she likes.
Dr. Sears and his wife Martha did research into the high needs babies personality type (it is not a disorder, or even a negative thing, they claim) when their fourth child was significantly more difficult to care for than the earlier three. These intense, high energy, demanding babies require every ounce of strength that their caregivers possess and never let up. Never.
On the really long days with her, I’ve completely broken down and then felt guilty for not being more thankful for a healthy, wonderful child. There have been days I’ve resented friends who have amiable babies that can go anywhere, and be with anyone, and still smile. There are times that I resent my husband because he can leave the house for long periods of time but I am tethered as a food source to my child.
When I stumbled upon the 12 Features of High Needs Babies in the early weeks with Erinn, my heart dropped. Every single characteristic sounded like my tiny daughter. It was still early though, I thought. She was still adjusting to life outside the womb. Surely some of the high needs baby “issues” that I perceived she had would fade with time.
Well, I re-read that post a few days ago and guess what? I actually identified with even MORE of the information than I had the first time I read it. A few points that struck very close to home:
|Some days, Erinn doesn’t like anything.
Photo by Amy Straka Photography
“High need babies extract every bit of energy from tired parents — and then want more.”
“Not being able to satisfy a baby’s needs is very frustrating for parents of high need babies. … There will be days when you nurse, rock, walk, drive, wear, and try every comforting technique known to man or woman, and nothing will work. Don’t take this as a sign of failure. You do the best you can, and the rest is up to the baby.”
“They startle easily during the day and settle with difficulty at night. While you can carry on normal family life without waking most sleeping infants, these babies often awaken at the slightest noise. Super-sensitive infants are unlikely to accept substitute caregivers willingly.”
“Holding is not enough; the holder must keep moving. If the holder wants to sit down, it had better be on something that rocks, glides, or swings.”
“Another unrealistic expectation new parents often have is that babies will soothe themselves to sleep with the help of a pacifier, a music box, or some baby-calming gadget. High need babies are smarter than that. They want to interact with people, not things.”
“These infants do not readily accept substitute care and are notoriously slow to warm up to strangers.”
Line after line after line… describing my own version of high needs babies. It was a bittersweet read. On one hand, my hope that my baby would soon “grow out” of her clingy, crying, demanding demeanor faded. On the other hand, it almost made me feel better. It isn’t me that is failing as a parent. It is just her personality. There is no magic trick to make her stop wanting to be held. There is nothing I can do to make her want to be held by outsiders. On the days when it seems like nothing I can do will appease her, it’s not my own lack of maternal instinct.
I’m not doing anything wrong.
You can’t fix high needs babies.
As I searched the article for answers — for solutions — on how to “fix” this type of kid, I found one simple suggestion: just accept it.
Dr. Sears encourages parents not to try to change these babies, or get frustrated with their constant needs. Instead, he suggests, parents try to think like the baby. Understand that these children are more sensitive than others, but that it is a trait that leads to empathy, greater intimacy and stronger relationships later in life. Eventually these babies become more independent and parents have their arms back to themselves again. In the meantime, he says, be the parent that the baby needs.
So I’ve made a conscious choice to let go of all my perceptions of what I want my baby to be and how I feel she should fit into my life. When she needs me, I strap on my ankle weights, crank up my favorite tunes on my iPod and cradle her face down across my arms as I walk around the house. Sometimes my husband does it instead (sans ankle weights). I try not to worry about work, or a clean house, or if I am going to have time to run later. I just focus on her and being the parent that she needs in this stage of her young life.
Somehow, at the end of every day, my work is done, my house looks pretty spiffy, my other kids are happy and healthy, and my arms feel like I got in a great rowing workout at the gym. I even manage a few weekly runs and some long, hot showers. It all gets done. Somehow.
So for a little while, my hands will be a little fuller than usual and my schedule a little tighter. Looking back, I know I’ll miss it, so for now, I want to accept — and appreciate — my healthy, smart and high-needs baby.
UPDATE: Since this post, Katie has written about Erinn’s progress and how it impacts other parents of high needs babies. Read:
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