"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.
1. Different temperament
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.
2. Different stimulus barrier
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
3. Different transitions
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.
4. Different sleep maturity
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
"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
5. Different nighttime needs
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."