Sound familiar? Your baby acts the way she does because that’s the way she is. Your baby acts the way she does, not because of your parenting, but because of her personality.
In the early weeks after birth you get a glimpse of who this little person really is. Even while pregnant you may have gotten a hint of the challenge to come. High need infants tend to be full-time tummy-thumpers and bladder- kickers, as if telling the world even before they’re born that they need more space.
In some ways all babies are high need babies, and most babies have high needs in at least one area of their life. Some have more high need areas than others. The neediness of the baby is often in the mind of the parent. Some experienced parents of children have widened their expectations of what babies are “normally” like, and they adapt more easily to a baby with high needs; new parents often are not so realistic. After Hayden introduced us to high-need babies, we learned a whole new way to parent. The babies that followed her each had their own particular high needs. We were able to recognize and respond to them because of our experience with her. None of them were as thoroughly “high need” as Hayden, but they came close. In retrospect, we realized that the babies who came before Hayden had high needs, too, in some areas. We had met those needs as best we could, knowing what we knew then. The difference between those babies and Hayden was not only a difference in need levels; Hayden also had the forceful personality to let us know just what she needed. (Factored into this whole spectrum of parenting is that we were young and full of energy with the first ones. Hayden was born eleven years after Jim. We had less energy, perhaps, but more experience.)
We have met many high need babies over the years. Based on this “gallery” we have compiled the following profile of high need babies. All babies will show some of these features some of the time, and these features are descriptive only. As you will see, each of these personality traits has its blessings and its trials. These personality traits should not be judged as “good” or “bad.” They are just differences between babies, but these differences do make high need babies challenging to parent. Ultimately, what matters is how the child learns to use these special gifts. Our goal is to help parents identify these unique features in their infant and child and channel these traits to work to the child’s advantage.
“He’s going to be a handful” one nurse said to another as they tried to console newborn baby George. You can often spot high need babies already in the hospital nursery. While other infants may lie contentedly in the bassinet, these babies protest group care and with their high intensity cries demand to be taken immediately to a private room with a private nurse — their mother. (This is where they belong in the first place). Even at a few hours of age George had the spunk to know what he was missing and the persistence required to get it. The cry of a high need baby is not a mere request, it’s an urgent demand. These babies put more energy into everything they do. They cry loudly, feed voraciously, laugh with gusto, and protest more forcefully if their needs are not met to their satisfaction. Because they feel so deeply, they react more powerfully if their feelings are disturbed. “If I don’t feed him as soon as he fusses, he falls apart” is a common statement from the mother of such a baby.
You can read the intensity of the baby’s feelings in her body language. The fists are clenched, back arched, muscles tensed, as if ready for action. One mother wrote:
I set up a cradle in our room so we could hear Mara’s cries at night. It quickly became clear that not only would we be able to hear her, so would everyone on the block. Mara was LOUD! When she started crying, it would quickly escalate. The intensity and shrillness sounded as if something must be very wrong. We would feed her, burp her, change her, rock her, walk with her, but sometimes nothing seemed to help. After a while, I found myself going into over-drive instantly whenever she cried, because I knew if it got out of control she’d quickly disintegrate and it would take her a long time to come back around. I became obsessive in trying to prevent her from getting upset in any way because there was hell to pay if she did. She was a type-A personality right from birth.
Intense babies become the intense toddlers, characterized by one word — “driven.” They seem in high gear all the time. Their drive to explore and experiment with everything in reach leaves no household item safe. Some high need toddlers maneuver around the house carefully, but most do not. These babies run headlong toward a desired object, seemingly oblivious of everything in their path. Soon it dawns on you that the same behavioral trait that can exhaust you will also delight you. The same drive that gets your toddler into trouble also leads him to a level of creativity toward which other children may not venture. Your job is to help him drive more carefully and on roads that he can handle.
This feature of high need babies, and its cousin hypertonic, are directly related to the quality of intensity. Hypertonic refers to muscles that are frequently tensed and ready to go, tight and waiting to explode into action. The muscles and mind of high need children are seldom relaxed or still. “Even as a newborn, I could feel the wiry in him,” one mother related. “She hated being swaddled,” another mother volunteered. Most infants, even high need ones, welcome being wrapped in a blanket, worn in a sling, or draped over your shoulder to mold into the contour of your body, but there are some high need babies who seem to shun containment and physical contact. They stiffen their limbs and arch their backs when you try to hold them, and they are frequently seen doing back dives in your lap, turning breastfeeding into a gymnastic event.
Parents, remember that, like all the words used to describe high need children, the term “hyperactive” is not a negative tag. At what point a normally active child becomes a “hyperactive” child is a judgment call. Calling your busy toddler hyperactive does not mean he will be burdened with this label forever, or that he will someday be tagged hyperactive by a school psychologist. This term just describes how your child acts, without making any judgment about whether it’s good or bad. “Hyperactive” in an infant or toddler is not a disorder, it’s a description.
“Hyper” is often in the eye of the childwatcher. Activity level is relative to the company the child keeps. Place an intense, creative, enthusiastic child in the midst of a group of more reserved children and the doer gets tagged “hyper” relative to the watchers. Also, the activity level of the child depends on the setting. A child may play quietly in the comfortable, known environment of his own home, yet be frantic and undirected in a play group full of strangers.
“There’s no such thing as a still shot” said one photographer-father of a high need baby. “His motor seems stuck in fast idle,” another father commented. These motor traits are part of the baby’s personality. They may be hard to live with at times, but this restlessness is not necessarily a negative trait. Some highly creative, world-changing people were at one time or another labeled hyperactive as a child.
High need babies extract every bit of energy from tired parents — and then want more. Though parents use the term “draining,” it’s not a clear analogy. What you give your baby doesn’t go down the drain. Perhaps “siphoning” is a more accurate term because what you are really doing is transferring much of your energy into your baby’s tank to help her thrive. You will need to muster up as much of a positive attitude as you can; try to think of these “draining” days as “giving” days. This will help get you through those high-maintenance early months.
Babies take the fuel they need from you without considering whether they leave anything behind in mother’s gas tank. The seemingly constant holding, nursing, and comforting leave little energy left over for your needs. Experienced mothers learn to operate in what one woman calls “the mother zone.” It’s like the “Twilight Zone”; you feel a bit fuzzy, somewhat sleep-deprived; you simply function in low gear for a stretch of time. It’s a season that passes; and while you’re in it, try not to fight it or resent it. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself that you didn’t get enough sleep, just don’t expect as much from yourself that day. Of course, you’re not completely rested — you are the mother of a baby who needs you. Time spent in the mother zone is good for you and for baby. Ease up on yourself and you’ll be easier to be around. You’ll be happier getting less done. Other tasks can wait, but baby can’t.
Many mothers seem to have an internal energy gauge that magically brings in more fuel just as the tank nears empty. There will be days of incessant holding with no breaks. But just when you feel you can’t cope with another day of giving, you get a second wind, and suddenly you can relax and enjoy your baby’s unique personality blooming. It’s as if baby senses mother’s breaking point and backs off a bit. There probably won’t be any days off, but some days will be less difficult than others.
As you advance toward your mid-terms in baby comforting, you will soon learn that feeding is not only a source of nutrition, it’s an easy tool for comforting. Studies show that babies who are fed frequently, as needed, cry less than infants who are fed on a more rigid parent-controlled schedule. In cultures where babies rarely cry (there are such places), infants breastfeed around twenty times a day. Researchers have attributed the mellowness of the babies in these cultures to the effect of frequent feeding on the overall organizing of the baby’s biological systems. This number of feedings sounds incredible to us in the Western culture, but it’s really not so strange when you consider that in these cultures baby is worn on the mother’s body in a way that he can have easy access to the breast. A feeding in this case may last only five minutes rather than the 30 to 45 minutes a baby takes to fill his tummy when fed only six or eight times a day in a more formal feeding arrangement. Breastfeeding is especially comforting to a baby, not only because the skin-to- skin contact makes this a nice place to nestle, but also because the baby can easily regulate the flow of the milk.
We live in a Western culture which is definitely at odds with this “primitive” style of mothering. And our babies cry a lot! It is a challenge to a Western mother of a high need baby to find a lifestyle that both she and her baby can live with. And there must be a balance in feeding. Overfed formula feeders can get fat, so using a formula-filled bottle as a constant pacifier is certainly not healthy or appropriate. The good news is you don’t have to worry about over-breastfeeding, because the caloric content of breast milk self- adjusts to frequent feeding; when baby has just a brief “comfort-nurse” she gets only the lower calorie foremilk. Frequent breastfeeders rarely remain overweight, even if for a while they look like miniature suomo wrestlers. Studies show that fat cells laid down by breastfeeding babies are quite different from those of babies fed manufactured baby milk. The fat melts away once baby becomes mobile. So how often should you breastfeed your high need baby? As frequently as baby needs, yet not to the extent of wearing out the feeder. There are other ways to comfort high need babies, and it’s important to learn some of these alternatives.
We’re in harmony with each other. I nurse around an average of 18 times a day. I know this sounds like a lot of nursing, but there is never a schedule to it. Either she lets me know or I just start it. It always works out. Nursing is never a hassle or bother. It’s just second nature to me. I don’t even think about it or worry about it. It seems like we are always in harmony. We just nurse whenever or wherever Lindsey or I start it.
“Schedule” is not in the high need baby’s vocabulary. Early on these smart infants learn that the breast or bottle is not only a source of nutrition, but also a source of comfort. In fact, research has shown that non-nutritive sucking (sucking for comfort more than food) is one of the earliest ways babies learn to settle. (Of course, a baby can’t have non-nutritive sucking from a bottle, so pacifiers get added to the repertoire for bottle feeders.)
A recurrent theme that we hear in talking with the parents of high need babies is, “She wants to nurse all the time.” Martha’s experience with Hayden is a perfect example. Because our first three babies went an average of three hours between feedings, or even four hours once we added solid food to their diet in the early months, she expected the same from Hayden. Her approach with the first three was to feed them when they cried. But when Hayden cried one hour after being fed, she wondered what to do. Of course, feeding is what Hayden needed, Martha discovered. Yet how could this be? She spent two weeks charting Hayden’s feeding habits in an effort to see what sort of schedule she had. At the end of the two weeks she looked at the chart and concluded that this baby simply didn’t have a schedule. That’s when Martha adopted the slogan “go with the flow.”
Expect baby’s need to nurse to intensify during high need days when baby will naturally gravitate toward her favorite pacifier and person, which to a breastfed baby are one and the same. Yes, you will feel like a human pacifier, because you are. Yet, consider that “pacifier” means “peacemaker.” Certainly this is the ultimate goal of parenting the high need baby: to give this growing infant an internal peace during those tumultuous months after birth when baby is learning to settle into life; this will help her learn eventually to create inner peace on her own.
Nursing is a wonderful timeout when we are both wearing thin. It alleviates a tightened clash of the wills and provides a calm and loving oasis where we are both refreshed. I am always grateful for prolactin.
Not only do high need babies breastfeed more frequently, the need for breastfeeding lasts longer. These babies are notoriously slow to wean. They realize that they have a good thing going and it would be foolish to give it up quickly. It is not unusual for high need babies (unless forced to wean before their time) to breastfeed at least two years.
Many people can’t believe that I am still breastfeeding her. Without extended breastfeeding, this child would be much more difficult to deal with.
High need babies don’t just merely request feeding and holding, they demand it — loudly. This feature more than any of the others pushes parents’ buttons, causing them to feel manipulated and controlled. Adults who are stuck in the “parenting equals control” mindset may have great difficulty realizing that babies’ demands equal communication, not control.
Mothers of high need babies often say, “I just can’t get to him fast enough.” These babies convey a sense of urgency in their signals; they do not like waiting, and they do not readily accept alternatives. Woe to the parent who offers baby the rattle when he is expecting a breast. He will let you know quickly and loudly that you’ve misread his cues. The concept of “delayed gratification” is totally foreign to infants, it must be sensitively and gradually taught when the child is developmentally ready to learn it.
It may be easier to cope with your baby’s demanding signals if you understand why high need babies have to be demanding in order to thrive. Suppose baby had high needs but did not have a strong personality to “demand” that these needs get met. Suppose he did not use the kind of persistent cry that ensures a response. This would be a lose-lose situation: baby would not thrive because his needs would not be filled, and parents would not get enough practice at cue reading to ever pick up on the baby’s real need level.
If the child feels that she can trust her caregivers, she will eventually learn to make her demands in a more socially acceptable way, rather than wildly overwhelming the whole caregiving environment. With parents who both respond to and wisely channel her demands, the high need child develops into a person with determination, one who will fight for her rights. The child becomes a leader instead of a follower, one who does not just follow the path of least resistance and do what everyone else is doing. Certainly, our country needs more of such citizens.
Being demanding is the trait of high need children that is most likely to drive parents bananas, but it is also the trait that drives children to succeed and excel. A high need child with a corresponding demanding personality will, if nurtured and channeled appropriately during the formative years, exhaust teachers as she did her parents; yet she will also be able to extract from adult resources, such as teachers, the level of help and education she will need to thrive in academic and social endeavors. This is why it is so important not to squelch an infant’s expressiveness. The ability to know one’s needs and be able to comfortably express them is a valuable tool for success in life.
As the high need infant grows into a high need toddler and child, parents must also help her learn that her demands must be balanced against the needs of others, so that she can learn to be a likeable and compassionate person as well as a demanding one. Helping a demanding infant develop a persistent personality without becoming a controlling person is one of the challenges we will discuss throughout this book.
“Why do high need babies need more of everything but sleep?” groaned a tired mother. You would think that high need babies would need more sleep; certainly their tired parents do. Click here for more information on high need babies and why they sleep differently and click here for nighttime parenting tips for you and your baby. To remedy your own tired feelings, remember what we said previously about living in “the mother zone.”
I have gradually come to realize that she just doesn’t need to sleep, and I can’t force her to do so. The best thing I can do is to continue to provide a nurturing environment conducive to sleep and realize that she will eventually sleep more and so will I.
Not being able to satisfy a baby’s needs is very frustrating for parents of high need babies. It seems like a direct attack on your abilities. After all, isn’t a contented baby the hallmark of effective mothering? Wrong! 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. You have not failed as a mother even if your baby is miserable much of the time. This is simply part of his personality. Meanwhile, keep experimenting with one comforting tool after another, and you will eventually discover one that works – - at least for that day. Then you will feel like a genius! Keep your detective hat on to find clues to your baby’s discomfort. Constant trial and error is how you build up your baby-soothing abilities.
It’s frustrating to realize that what worked yesterday doesn’t work today. “Just as I think I have the game won, he ups the ante,” a baffled mother confided. High need babies are inconsistently appeased. You will need lots of variety in your bag of comforting tricks.
Rocking, walking, using carriers, singing lullabies, tummy position, back position, side position, infant seats, pacifiers, tilting the mattress of the bed, bringing him to bed with us, cuddling him on breasts or bare chest, bathing him just before sleep time, hot water bottles wrapped inside a fake fur animal, letting him stay awake until midnight before starting-to-sleep procedures, starting right after dinner, letting him cry, not letting him cry, nothing seemed to work. Some of these things worked some of the time, nothing worked all the time. This is very frustrating and it makes you constantly wonder what you are doing wrong.
Along with their unpredictability, these children show extremes of mood swings. When happy, they are a joy to be around; they are master charmers and people pleasers. When angry, they let everyone around them feel the heat.
When he is happy, he is the happiest baby around, but when he is angry he is the worst baby around. He is still that way, sunshine and smiles, anger and daggers. He has no middle emotion.
The child’s unpredictability makes your day unpredictable. Do you take him shopping and risk a mega tantrum when his first grocery grabs are thwarted, or will this be a day when he is the model shopping cart baby, charming everyone at the checkout counter?
We have a theory that certain types of children show up in families who have certain areas in which they need to grow. When Hayden came along, our life had settled into a level of predictability that was quite comfortable, possibly heading for the “stale” category. We had three sons, easy-going types who liked sports and eagerly marched to the beat of the drummer in our family (Bill). We had similar interests professionally — we worked together in pediatric settings, pursued writing together, and Martha’s interest in childbirth education and breastfeeding counselling fit right into this pediatric setting. If Hayden hadn’t come along to introduce us to “unpredictability,” our work as authors would probably have begun and ended with one book. (And even that one book would have turned out to be “plain vanilla.”) There would have been little else to think about or say. Meeting the challenge of this “different” baby forced us to discover our creative selves. Hayden taught us that life with a high need child is never boring.
High need babies are keenly aware of the goings-on in their environment. “Easily bothered,” “quickly stimulated,” “like walking on eggshells” is how parents describe their sensitive babies. High need babies prefer a secure and known environment, and they are quick to protest when their equilibrium is upset. They startle easily during the day (for example, we learned not to turn on the blender if Hayden was anywhere nearby) 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.
This acute sensitivity to their environment can become a rewarding asset as a high need child grows. These children are “tuned in” to what is going on around them. They are not distant children. Their keen awareness stimulates their curiosity, which in turn stimulates learning. They become kids who care. They are bothered by another child’s hurts. They develop empathy, a quality that is lacking in many of today’s teens and adults. Because these children are so sensitive, they develop great discernment and are able to consider the effects of their behavior on the feelings of others. They are able to achieve one of the ultimate qualities of self-discipline: the ability to think through what they’re about to do.
Super-sensitive babies react in a big way to physical and emotional discomforts. They let you know, in no uncertain terms, they hurt and they need help — now!
He cries in protest when the littlest thing is not right with him. He is so sensitive. Whenever he has a cold, he cries and whines, and needs to be held constantly. He wails when he has a cold or ear infection. At his nine month check-up, I recall our pediatrician saying, “Wow! So much anger for such a little baby.” I think he was just angry that his teeth hurt.
Though upsetting to your ears and frustrating to your sensitive heart, hypersensitive babies are at least easier to read. They let you know when they need help or when something should be changed in their caregiving environment. Their signals cannot go unnoticed.
High need babies crave touch: skin-to-skin contact in your arms, at your breasts, in your bed. They extract whatever physical contact they can from their caregivers. They also crave motion. 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. This constant holding may be particularly difficult for new parents who expected to have the magazine model baby, the one who lies quietly in the crib gazing at expensive mobiles. This is not the play profile of the high need baby. Parents’ arms and bodies are his crib; mother’s breasts are his pacifier, and a bouncing lap is his chair. Most high need babies choose to upgrade their accommodations from the crib or playpen to the baby sling. They like to be worn many hours a day because they like the physical contact and they like to be up where the action is. Smart babies.
Some high need babies are super cuddly and crave being held, others are slower to warm up and often receive the label “uncuddly.” It could be that this behavior is caused by extreme sensitivity, which causes them to perceive handling as unsettling or threatening. It is important for the parent to stay calm and relaxed. Babies like this need careful handling that avoids over- stimulation and gradually desensitize them to touch. Eventually, they will become accustomed to relaxed touching and holding. Some uncuddly babies continue to resist close physical contact, being closely contained in the sling, or spending long periods of time in one person’s arms. They also protest being swaddled. These are the babies who need more space and floor time. The uncuddly babies are the most difficult of high need babies because they don’t melt and mold rewardingly into the arms of their caregivers. If you have a baby who is initially uncuddly, don’t take it personally. These babies are simply slower to warm up to physical contact. Most of them eventually ease into the high-touch style of parenting that their high need colleagues have learned to enjoy.
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. Parents will often report, “He just can’t relax by himself.” High need babies need help to fall asleep. They must learn to trust their parents to help them. This will help them learn to relax on their own, a skill that has value for a lifetime. Crying oneself off to sleep is not a good way to learn to relax. The best way for a baby to learn to relax and fall asleep is to have his behavior shaped for him by a parent. Once a child learns to relax on his own, he’ll have no trouble falling asleep, when he’s tired, on his own.
The quality of wanting people instead of things as pacifiers, while initially exhausting, will eventually work to the child’s advantage. The child will have a better grasp on interpersonal relationships, especially being comfortable with the quality of intimacy.
We learned early on that Amy was a people-person. She preferred anything human to anything synthetic or mechanical. We tried a host of different things designed to soothe or entertain small infants, but Amy would have none of them. At our childbirth class reunion, all the other babies seemed quiet and content, sitting in infant seats or lying peacefully on the floor. Amy wanted and needed to be in our arms. That day, we got a lot of suggestions about ways to help her. Many other parents were extolling the virtues of the mechanical swing, telling of the many hours their baby would spend in it. Babies who had not tried one were put in the host’s swing and almost always promptly fell asleep. We dutifully tried Amy in it and she cried immediately. Over the months that followed, we learned in no uncertain terms that she preferred arms to the cradle and the breast to the bottle. We came to respect this tendency in her. The stroller, the cradle, the infant seats were all put away until she signalled that she was ready to be more physically separate from us. Now, at nearly a year old, she sleeps peacefully on a futon at naptime and loves taking rides in the stroller and backpack. That time of needing intense physical contact was quite short. We’re proud that we were able to be there for her in the way that she needed us to be.
The song “Only You,” could be the theme of most high need babies. These infants do not readily accept substitute care and are notoriously slow to warm up to strangers. As a mother of a clingy baby described it, “Amanda didn’t like new people or new places and seemed to be in a continual phase of separation anxiety. Babysitters wouldn’t watch her because of her reputation as a screamer. This was hard on me because I desperately needed a break from the intensity of my child.”
It helps to see separation from the baby’s viewpoint. To most adults, especially those of the “babies must learn to be independent” mindset, baby and mother should be separate persons, able to function on their own. Babies don’t see it that way. In their minds, mother is a part of themselves, and they are part of mother. Mother and baby are one, a complete package. These babies feel right when they feel at one with mother; they feel anxious and frightened when not with mother. Adults dub this completely normal behavior as “separation anxiety.” In reality, these emotions are normal feelings inside a little person who knows that he needs the presence of his mother to thrive and to feel complete. Labels such as “stranger anxiety” or “separation anxiety” are adult jargon, reflecting our expectations of how we want babies to act for our own convenience, not how babies really are, or what they really need.
We have observed that mothers who spend the early months practicing this style of attachment parenting (wearing their baby many hours a day in a sling, breastfeeding on cue, taking their babies with them wherever they go, and often sleeping with baby) themselves experience separation anxiety when not with their baby. If this “anxiety” appears in normal mothers, shouldn’t it also be normal in babies? Fortunately, high need babies have powerful personalities to tell us when things are not right.
Your baby’s quality of being very selective about who cares for her shows that she has great discernment. High need babies know which situations and which persons they can trust to meet their needs, and they protest if these expectations are not met. Loud separation protests also reveal that these babies have a capacity for forming deep attachments — if they didn’t care deeply, they wouldn’t fuss so loudly when separated. This capacity is the forerunner of intimacy in adult relationships.
Eventually, the infant’s caregiving circle will grow to include people other than mother. The concept of weaning can be applied to more areas than just weaning from breast or bottle. It also means letting go of exclusive relationships. When a new baby comes along, for example, the older one by necessity must begin to wean from mother to father (if she hasn’t started already). Our high need babies were willing to stay happily with other people by age three and a half, sooner than that if the person caring for them was someone to whom they were already strongly attached (father, sibling, close friend of mother’s, grandparent). Our youngest daughter, Lauren, was given a videotape when she was about two years and nine months that included a song entitled “Mama Comes Back.” Interestingly, it was her favorite part of the video. She liked Martha to sing the song for her at bedtime over and over. We were still having trouble leaving her happily behind, and one night we again faced a tearful Lauren who didn’t want Martha to leave. Remembering how much Lauren liked this song, Martha suggested that because she was leaving she’d put on “Mama Comes Back” for her. Her face instantly brightened and she clicked onto that idea and ran happily to watch the video, secure in the reassurance that mommy would come back.