“Why do high-need children need more of everything but sleep?” a tired mother once asked me. Until we had a high-need infant, I would have guessed that these babies would be worn out by the end of the day and would actually need more sleep; certainly, their parents do. A tired father once told me, “When it comes to sleep, I’m a high-need parent.” Here’s why high-need babies sleep differently.
The same tense temperament that causes daytime neediness results in nighttime restlessness. These babies come wired differently, day and night. Their supersensitive nature during the day carries over into their sleep habits during naps and nights. Their keen awareness and curiosity about their environment carries over into being awake and aware at night. It seems these babies have some internal bright light that stays on all day and isn’t easily turned off at night.
Ever wonder why some infants can fall asleep and stay asleep amid the noise of a party, while others awaken when you tiptoe quietly past their bed? This is because babies have different stimulus barriers, which is the ability to block out disturbing sensory stimuli. Some babies have an amazing ability to block out sensory overload, as if they conclude, “I can’t handle all this commotion, I’m tuning out.” They fall asleep. High-need babies can’t rely on sleep to retreat from sensory overload. Instead, they overreact.
Not only does an immature stimulus barrier keep babies from going to sleep; it interferes with their staying asleep. Infants with a maturer stimulus barrier may sleep through a slight discomfort, such as being too cold, too hot, slightly hungry, or even lonely. These nighttime discomforts awaken highly sensitive babies.
High-need babies don’t transition easily. They don’t willingly switch gears. Going from arms to carseat to arms to shopping cart is hard for them. Going from the state of being awake to sleep is a major behavioral transition, one these infants can’t make without a lot of help. While you can put some infants down in their crib and they fall asleep, high-need babies have to be deeply asleep before you can put them down. Even with older high-need children, their minds race so quickly at bedtime (the time you assign for them), that they cannot wind down without parental help.
Young infants spend much of their sleeping time in a light sleep state called REM sleep from which they are easily awakened. During the night infants normally alternate light sleep with deep sleep stages, switching from light sleep to deep sleep and back to light sleep as often as every hour. When making the transition between deep and light sleep infants go through a vulnerable period in which they are easily awakened. As infants mature, the deep sleep stages lengthen, so that by four to six months they sleep for longer stretches. High-need babies seem to take longer to develop sleep maturity. They are more prone to awaken during the vulnerable periods of transition from one sleep stage to another. Yet high-need infants often seem to be totally “zonked” when they are in the stage of deep sleep. Eventually, these infants are able to spend more time in deep sleep, yet they do not “sleep through the night” as early as less sensitive babies.
“I soon realized that my baby’s sleep problem was really society’s problem, the fault of its expectations that babies will sleep through the night. My problem was that she wasn’t sleeping as expected by me or by the cultural norms.”
Craving constant physical contact and not being able to self-soothe are characteristics of high-need babies during the daytime. They are also nighttime features. High-need babies demand whatever day and night parenting style gives them a sense of well-being, and that usually means sleeping in physical contact with someone, preferably mother. They won’t surrender to any arrangement that takes them out of their mother’s arms, not even a much-needed nap. It seems that they need a womb-like environment at night as well as during the day. But just to be inconsistent, as high-need babies get older, the nighttime closeness itself can stimulate them into waking easily. High-need babies also have a high degree of separation anxiety, which can contribute to problems with going to sleep.
“He wouldn’t even settle sleeping next to me. He had to sleep on me.”