How to Raise a High Needs Baby
Our first three children were relatively “easy” infants. They slept well and had predictable feeding routines. Their needs were easy to identify and satisfy. In fact, I began to suspect that parents in my pediatric practice who complained about their fussy babies were exaggerating. “What’s all the fuss about a high needs baby?” I wondered. I found out with our next child.
How She Acted
Then came Hayden, our fourth, whose birth changed our lives. Our first clue that she was going to be a high needs baby came within a day or two. “I can’t put her down,” became Martha’s recurrent theme. Breastfeeding for Hayden was not only a source of food, but a source of comfort. Martha became a human pacifier. Hayden would not accept substitutes. She was constantly in arms and at her mother’s breast — and after a while those arms and breasts would get tired. Hayden’s cries were not mere requests, they were all out demands. Well meaning friends suggested, “Just put her down and let her cry it out.” That didn’t work at all. Her extraordinary persistence kept her crying. Her cries did not fade away. They intensified if we didn’t respond.
Hayden was very good at teaching us what she needed. “As long as we hold her, she’s content” became our baby-care slogan. If we tried letting her fuss, she only fussed harder. We played “pass the baby.” When Martha’s arms gave out, into mine she came.
Hayden became an in arms, at breast, and in our bed high needs baby. If we tried to leave her for a much needed baby break, she’d protest against any baby sitter. The neighborhood slogan became: Everywhere Bill and Martha went Hayden was sure to go. We tagged her “The Velcro Baby.” Hayden opened us up as persons. The turning point came when we closed the baby books and opened our hearts to our high needs baby. Instead of defensively getting caught up in the spoiling fear, we started listening to what Hayden had been trying to tell us from the moment she exited the womb: “Hi, mom and dad! You’ve been blessed with a different kind of baby, and I need a different kind of parenting. If you give it to me, we’re going to get along fine. If you don’t, we’re in for a long struggle.” As soon as we discarded our preconceived ideas of how babies are supposed to be and accepted the reality of how Hayden was, we all got along much better. Hayden taught us that tiny babies don’t manipulate, they communicate.
How We Felt
If Hayden had been our first child, we would have concluded that it was our fault she couldn’t settle herself, since we were inexperienced parents. But she was our fourth child, and by this time we felt we had a handle on caring for children. Nevertheless, Hayden did cause us to doubt our parenting abilities. Our confidence was getting shaky as our energy reserves were nearing empty. Our feelings about Hayden were as erratic as her behavior. Some days we were empathetic and nurturing; other days we were exhausted, confused, and resentful of her constant demands. Such mixed feelings were foreign to us, especially after parenting three easily managed babies. Soon it became obvious that Hayden was a high needs baby. She was wired differently from other babies.
What We Did
The challenge for us was to figure out how to mother and father this unique little person while also conserving enough energy for our other three children – - and ourselves.
Our first obstacle to overcome was our professional past. We were educated in the sixties and seventies, so we were victims of the prevailing parenting mindset of the times — fear of spoiling. We entered parenthood believing it was mandatory to control our children, lest they control us. And there was that horrible fear of being manipulated. Were we losing control? Was Hayden manipulating us? We consulted books, a useless exercise. No baby book contained a chapter on Hayden. And the mostly male authors were either beyond child rearing age or seemed far removed from the trenches of everyday baby tending. Yet here we were, two experienced adults, whose lives were being taken over by a ten-pound infant.
A child psychologist friend who was visiting us commented on Hayden’s cry: “My her cry is impressive. She doesn’t cry in an angry, demanding way but in an expectant way, as if she knew she would be heard.”
Hayden caused us to reevaluate our job description as parents. We had always thought an effective parent needed to be in constant control. Then we realized that mindset was self-defeating. It assumes that there is an adversarial relationship between parent and child: the baby is “out to get you,” so you better get her first. Hayden made us realize our role was not to control her. It was to manage her as a high needs baby, and to help her learn to control herself.
Our job as parents was not to change Hayden into a behavioral clone of every other baby. It would have been wrong to try to change her. (How dull the world would be if all babies acted the same!) It was better to widen our expectations and accept her the way she was, not the way we wished she was. Our parental role was like that of a gardener: we couldn’t change the color of the flower or the day when it would bloom, but we could pull the weeds and prune the plant so it blossomed more beautifully. Our role was to channel Hayden’s behavior and nurture her special qualities so that instead of being a liability these temperament traits would later work to her advantage and serve her well.
Where should she sleep?
She woke more and more, until one night she was awake every hour. Martha said, “I don’t care what the books say, I’ve got to get some sleep.” Whereupon she nestled Hayden next to her in our bed. Once we discarded the picture of a self-soothing baby sleeping solo in a crib, we slept together happily. We found we had to be selective in choosing people with whom to commiserate.
When we discussed our parenting dilemmas with friends, we came away feeling as if Hayden were the only high needs baby in the whole wide world who couldn’t satisfy herself during the day or settle herself at night. We concluded that no one could understand a high needs baby like Hayden unless they’d had a high needs baby like Hayden. Eventually, Martha found some like-minded mothers and surrounded herself with supportive friends.
What to call her?
Hayden didn’t fit any of the usual labels. She really wasn’t a “fussy” baby, as long as we held her and attended to her needs. “Spirited” was misleading; everyone wants a spirited baby. She wasn’t “colicky,” since she didn’t seem to be in pain. Nor did the tag “difficult” ring true; some may beg to differ, but we were finding that holding and being near a baby to whom we were becoming so attached was not all that difficult. Besides, these labels were too negative for this little person who seemed to know so positively what she needed and how to get it. It wasn’t until years later, after talking with dozens of parents of babies who also needed to nurse so often, needed to be held a lot, needed human contact at night, that the term “high needs baby” came to us. It best describes the kind of baby Hayden was and the level of parenting she needed.
In my pediatric practice, I discovered that the term “high needs baby” was P.C. — psychologically correct. By the time drained parents came to me for counseling about their high needs baby, they had already been on the receiving end of a barrage of negatives: “You hold her too much,” “It must be your milk,” “She’s controlling you.” All relayed an underlying message of “bad baby and bad parenting.” They felt it was somehow their fault their high needs baby acted this way. As soon as I would pronounce the diagnosis “high needs baby,” I could see a look of relief on the faces of the parents. Finally, someone had something nice to say about their baby. “High needs baby” sounds special, intelligent, unique, and it shifts the focus to the baby’s personality, relieving parents from the guilt of believing that their baby acts this way because of their parenting. Further, “high needs baby” suggests that there is something parents can do to help this baby. It underscores the idea that these babies simply need more: more touch, more understanding, more sensitivity, more attachment parenting.
The Control Issue
Hayden early on caused us to reevaluate the issue of control. We gradually figured out that the child shouldn’t control the parents, or the parents control the child. Yet parents must control situations; when there is no limit-setting, family life is a disaster. We needed to be in charge of Hayden, to give her “house rules” and then control her environment so that it was not difficult for her to comply with these rules. What helped us get over the fear-of-spoiling and the fear-of-being-manipulated mindset was the realization that it was better to err on the side of being overreactive and overresponsive. As we worked on developing a balance of appropriate responses, there were times when we responded too slowly and times when we jumped too quickly, but we felt that when in doubt, it was better to be responsive. Children who are perhaps indulged a bit (as many firstborn high needs children are) will at least develop a healthy self-image and trust in their parents. With this foundation it is easier to back off a bit as you try to create a healthy balance between parents’ needs and child’s. The child of parents who respond too little develops a poor self-image and a distance develops between parent and child. This situation is harder to remedy. I have never heard parents in my pediatric practice say that they wish they hadn’t held their baby so much. In fact, most, if able to rewind their parenting tape, would hold their baby more.
We were unprepared for the strong-mindedness we encountered in Hayden as a toddler. The older children had responded well to verbal cues. Hayden seemed not to hear us. So, rather than be constantly yelling “no, don’t touch,” (which was futile), we taught her that throughout the house there were “yes-touches” and “no-touches.” Our job included making the “yes-touches” more accessible to her than the forbidden things so that she could learn how to control herself. Hayden could operate from her own inner controls in a setting that communicated order and structure of some sort (every home will do this differently). When she has the opportunity to behave properly independent of endless no’s from us, she would start to get a sense of her own inner controls.
High Needs Baby vs Our Needs
Toward the middle of Hayden’s first year, we realized that parenting a high needs baby could have a “better or worse” effect on the husband-wife relationship. It was easy for things to get out of balance. A high needs baby can easily dominate the home. There were times when Martha risked burning out from over giving. A warning sign of impending burnout was Martha saying: “I don’t even have time to take a shower, Hayden needs me so much.” For Martha’s sake, and ultimately for the sanity of the whole family, I had to remind her, “What Hayden needs most is a happy, rested mother.” It wasn’t enough just to preach. Besides pitching in more around the house and with the older children, I would take over with Hayden when I could. I would take her for a walk or car ride so that Hayden could be out of Martha’s sight and temporarily out of mind.
Having a high needs baby helped us mature in our communication with each other. There was always the “her needs versus our needs” dilemma. We had to steal time for ourselves, realizing that even the best parenting can be undermined if the marriage falls apart. I saw how important it was to Martha for me to validate her mothering. I frequently offered not only a reassuring “You know best,” but when I saw her drive to give outpacing her energy reserves, I realized I needed to intervene and help. I wondered when I would ever have my wife back, but I realized we couldn’t rewind this parenting tape. I was an adult, and Hayden would only go through this stage once.
Hayden grew from a high needs baby to a high-energy teen, to graduating from college with a degree in, you guessed it, drama. Her life as a high needs baby is displayed in our book The Fussy Baby. She sometimes opens this book and shows her friends, “That’s me.” On prom night as she stood posed for her picture, she looked so grown up in her formal gown. I whispered to Martha, “High needs baby fills out,” and this mature teen-woman gave her daddy a wink. As she was escorted out the door to her first prom, our minds and hearts filled with flashbacks from those countless energy-draining scenes of babyhood, toddlerhood, and childhood. As I walked “High Needs Baby” down the aisle to transfer her to the Man of her dreams I realize this mature gifted young women would now give to her mate and their children the high line of nurturing we had given her. Martha and I looked at each other and thought, “It’s been a long and bumpy road, yet those years in arms, at breast, in our bed, the many discipline confrontations, and the years of high-touch parenting have produced a confident, compassionate, caring person. It has all been worthwhile.”