Holding On With a High Needs Baby

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I had an unrealistic idea of motherhood before I had my sweet girl 3 years ago. I envisioned quiet nights rocking her to sleep gently and laying her down in her picture perfect Pottery Barn crib. I dreamed of our days filled with baby giggles after a simple game of peek-a-boo. I surely would take my daughter around town to all the fun kids places and watch her laugh as strangers smiled at my happy little girl. I didn’t know I wouldn’t have that calm happy baby. I didn’t know I wouldn’t be able to put my baby down day or night. I didn’t know I’d spend the better part of a year surviving on 30 minute chunks of sleep and struggling to get my little girl to eat. I had no idea I wouldn’t leave the house alone that first year because my baby would scream if I were more than a few feet away. I had no idea that I would be the mama to a very amazing high needs baby.

Mothering a high needs baby is hard, but with  all those big feelings the biggest one is love. It is all worth it. Photo Credit Raspberry Lane Studios

All babies are hard. And all babies have a lot of needs. Newborns don’t sleep, babies cry. A lot of babies are often high needs in one area, like breastfeeding or sleep. But then there are “high needs babies”. These babies are often high needs in all areas. They are not fond of sleeping. At all. They need lots of stimulation and often need to nurse frequently or having feeding issues. They constantly need to be held, and usually only by their mom. Most need lots of movement and will refuse to just sit still. They are extra sensitive to strangers and do not do well when separated from their moms. They are smart, particular, and discerning. It’s not just their needs that are high, but it is their determination to get their needs met that sets them apart. Long before they can talk their voices are loud and their cries will not stop until they have everything they need. Their persistent and demanding nature benefits them, but often leaves their parents exhausted and overwhelmed.

None of the baby books I read while pregnant ever described a baby like Kennedy. Her own doctor hadn’t seen a baby with her feeding issues or demanding nature. I felt so lost and alone. Here was this perfectly healthy newborn who had a cry that could shake the house. Not just a fussiness or colic, but a cry that still makes my heart race just thinking of it today. She was only calm in my arms, and needed constant touch and comfort from me day and night. Kennedy demanded to be continuously moving and stimulated. And forget those automatic swings, she needed to be in my arms with me moving and stimulating her. It wasn’t until a terrifying referral to the Failure to Thrive clinic that we learned her refusal to nurse was because she needed to be moving to eat. The only way she would sleep was in my arms while I was bouncing on a yoga ball.

So, that’s what I did. I bounced on that yoga ball for every nap and through the night. I bounced on that ball while I ate dinner. I bounced on that ball while I fed her. We even brought that ball to her first Thanksgiving so I could bounce and hold her while the family ate. All the movement was even more exhausting when functioning on minimal sleep. And not just your typical newborn lack of sleep. While my friend’s kids were starting to sleep through the night, Kennedy and I were still up partying (bouncing) every half hour. We never even attempted to put her in that beautiful crib. That girl wasn’t going to sleep anywhere but right on me.

A rare moment where Kennedy was asleep long enough to get a photo!

All the bouncing, the sleepless nights, the tears- all of it was worth it of course. Kennedy brought a million joys to me, and with a cry so loud her laugh was even louder. But having a high needs baby is isolating. Physically we couldn’t drive more than 3 minutes from home because Kennedy refused to be out of my arms, let alone in the backseat (she cried so hard she actually popped a blood vessel in her eye once!). Emotionally, I felt so alone. I once ventured to a mom and baby group and ended up leaving in tears. I watched all the other babies lying on the floor, happy and calm or even sleeping. Meanwhile, Kennedy and I were pacing around the room to the point that I started to sweat because if I stopped even to catch my breath she would start to scream. She was so different. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something wrong with my baby? Was there something wrong with me? My dear husband did so much to try and help, but Kennedy only wanted me. I found myself feeling alone, tired, and terrified. I was dealing with severe post-partum anxiety and searching for anyway to help sweet Kennedy. I would do anything for my baby, but I just didn’t know what was going on.

I finally found a book that told me exactly what was going on. There was a term for Kennedy’s personality. I had a high needs baby and I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing as a mom. I was loving my baby as she was and giving her everything she needed. I learned that if I parent to her temperament, and not to the expectations of society, that my little girl can change the world. She will use the voice she had to get her needs met as a baby to insist that she and others be treated with respect as an adult. My job is to make sure she always knows that her feelings are valued and her needs respected. So we bounced, we co-slept (and still do!), we baby-wore. Knowing that Kennedy was perfectly fine and just needed more than most babies allowed me to embrace our experience and the beautiful closeness we developed.

At 9 months old, Kennedy started to walk and talk. Our whole world changed when she could tell us what she wanted! Her constant need to move turned into a love of running and dancing. Her scary feeding issues turned into quite a diverse palate, from olives to oysters to good old mac-n-cheese. Slowly we were able to be in the car long enough to explore Madison. Sleep was still non-existent, but with her sleeping by my side we could get a few solid hours here or there. We joined toddler classes and I finally made mom friends! Her needs remained high but what once seemed so exhausting was now just the norm for our family. The fog and fear I felt slowly began to fade.

At 3 years old, Kennedy has transformed from a high needs baby to the most incredible kid. Her sensitivity as a baby has morphed into the most beautiful empathy for others. She is sweet and gentle and wise beyond her years. She is shy, but once you get in to her inner circle you are fiercely loved and protected. She is finally OK with me taking small breaks so that I can take care of myself. Yes, Kennedy still has big feelings, but those big tears usually mean even bigger smiles. Her laugh is loud and she loves to cuddle and be close. And she is so smart that I often spend my evenings looking up facts about whatever subject she is currently interested in so that I can keep up with her!

The yoga ball that once was my constant companion now makes for a great game of kickball…just don’t ask me to bounce on it!

If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing about Kennedy. Even with all her needs, she was and is the most incredible and loving child. The only thing I would change would be how I loved me during those really tough times. It took awhile, but I’ve learned that in order to fulfill Kennedy’s high needs I have to make sure my needs are being met too. Some days this means a long silent run on the trails or weekend trips alone to Target. When I take those moments for myself I can return to Kennedy re-energized and able to be present and patient enough to meet her needs. Our family didn’t start as quietly and calmly as I had imagined, but our journey has made us strong and attached. I hope my high needs baby turns into a strong, persistent, influential woman. And if she ever needs it for any reason, I still have that yoga ball tucked away for her.

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Kathryn
Kathryn is a stay at home mom to her smart and spirited 5 year old daughter Kennedy, her new baby Croix, and three furry pets. After finishing grad school in NYC, Kathryn decided to embrace the cold and move to Madison. Despite plans to only live here for one year, she fell in love with her husband Joe and all the city has to offer. After a childhood of moving around internationally, she has enjoyed putting down roots in Madison but still loves to travel as much as possible. When not adventuring with her family, you can find Kathryn running around her neighborhood and local trails, writing with a strong cup of coffee, or making a mess baking in the kitchen with her kids.

14 COMMENTS

  1. I can totally relate to all of this! My 4 year old was a very “spirited” baby…when I would pick him up from daycare and would ask how he was, they would simply say “You know your son…just guess.”
    He is now a loving, smart little boy but still has huge feelings! I often feel overwhelmed when parenting him and wonder what I did wrong.. escpecially now that I have a 5 month old who is such a sweet and quiet baby.
    But reading this was helpful and I plan to take a look at the book you mentioned!
    Thanks for writing this!

    • Lynn, I can totally relate! You did nothing wrong! It’s so hard because you don’t hear much about high needs babies and those big feelings they have as babies are still there are preschoolers! Overwhelming is a great word for parenting a high needs/spirited child! Some days it’s just sitting there with them as they feel. It’s amazing how babies have such different temperaments isn’t it? Check that book out and there’s lots of other great resources for parenting the older high needs child as well! Big hugs!

  2. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who feels this way. My son is high needs, he is only 8 months now and we are starting to discover how cheerful and smart he can be (when his needs are met!).. We understand his needs better now. The first 6 months were so rough on the whole family! My daughter who is 4 now was a textbook baby and so easy in every way. I thought there was something wrong with my son, but his doctor told me at 6 months that he is just a very opinionated baby! It was good to read your blog, and a relief to know that it gets better with time.

  3. Oh momma momma!

    You described my sweet girl so perfectly. Only not feeding issues- just constantly nursing.

    She’s 5, almost 6 now. So petite at 34lb. In LOVE with preschool and cannot wait to go to kinder next year. She still doesn’t sleep through the night, still needs to be cuddled to sleep, and comes to our bed every night. Her little legs run sub 10 minute miles without hardly breaking a sweat.

    I recently read an article where the Mom was reflecting on her now grown strong willed daughter (which I feel like high needs babies often translate into strong willed children). She said, “yes, they chase hard after what they want, but they also chase hard after what’s right”.

    • Your post here was like a trip down memory lane. I can’t believe it was 9 years that my oldest introduced me motherhood with his high needs. Constant holding, constant feeding, clingyness, an hour to get him down for a nap and sleeping for only 20 minutes, up every hour for the first 2 years of life. I dont know how I did it, especially when I was pregnant with #2 and then had a newborn. Luckily my baby slept through the night before big brother.
      He too isn’t much of a sleeper, has big feelings, and requires a lot more hands on involvement compared to my other kids. But he is smart, sensitive, goody, and very much loveable. Thanks for sharing your story. I wish I had read this as a new mom, I know this will help a lot of other moms!

  4. How I can relate!! I seriously thought I was doing everything wrong and everyone was right that it was all my own doing, could ever put her down for about the tlfirst 10months of her life she basically lived in my carrier (best money ever spent!). But she is now 17 months old, still a little cling on and intense but fiercely independent with massive feelings and I wouldn’t change her for the world.

  5. Thank you for posting this, it’s like I was reading my son’s past nine month story. He also is walking and talking now. I am exhausted we just had a meltdown and it is good to know that we are not the only ones!! No one understands, all of my friends babies just play and lay around and don’t need to be held and I watch them with equal parts happiness and envy. I know it will pass but when you are in the trenches with a high needs baby it is terrifying. This made me feel better about today, he woke up from 2-5am and has napped once, had a full on meltdown at least three times and wants nothing more than to nurse or be held 75% of the time still! Ah sigh at least I know that the future is bright!

  6. My baby #3 was so very similar! She is 5 years old now and the easiest kid in so many ways. She shook my confidence as a mother during those early years, but I’m so grateful that I trusted my gut and loved her where she was at. I think I still have slight PTS from the crying. It’s funny now, to see her strength of character and sensitive heart. I can totally understand why she cried as she did before she had words to communicate. I feel like forcing independence on her too soon would have created a lot of anxiety and mistrust. Instead, we have a happy, independent, fiercely loyal and intelligent little person, who might actually change the world one day.

  7. I had to find you after your post got into the Nashville Moms Blog. I had this happen to me too. Thank you for validating my experience. For so long, people made me feel like I caused the behavior. I lived on the exercise ball and took it everywhere we went. I could not put my child down. She didn’t sleep through the night until 3 years old. We also had medical problems on top of her being a generally high needs baby. I wonder if anyone has anymore kids after that experience. I literally was terrified to put her down. Once I got off the bouncy ball, I held her for 2 hour long naps in the rocking chair until she was 2.5 years. Now, she is 5 and getting ready to start kindergarten and doing great–still a very, very active child, but so passionate and emphatic. I am just now picking up the pace of my law practice after devoting my life to her. I can’t tell you how much I relate to this post. Thank you for this one and your other posts as well!

    • That’s amazing Glad to hear similar stories .. how do you deal with sleep?
      I mean don’t u get very very tired after holding her every night on hand for 2 hours?

    • So glad to hear from you Ashley! my girl is 5 now too and it all makes sense why she was the way she was as a baby! We just had another baby (who is totally different) and I refuse to take the yoga ball out! Too many long nights and days and not so great memories with that thing!

  8. Oh gosh! Memory lane here too. Our first was an un-put-downable baby who could only be held in our hands as she hated to be worn in a carrier. I tried five different carriers, to no avail. Thankfully she responded well to her dad, and we shared the load of holding her. Thankfully also she extroverted, liking to be out of the house and meeting people. We considered long and hard about having a second child, but eventually did, because of how much we knew she would love to have a sibling. Now at age 4.75 years she is opinionated, demanding, loyal, helpful and loving and HAS JUST STARTED SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT, hooray!

    • Hi Susanne! Yay for sleeping through the night!!! We actually just had another baby and it’s such a different experience! It took us, especially me, a very long time to be in a place (away from the yoga ball!) to have another baby, but it’s so neat to see my daughter be a big sister! Plus, they only made one of her so it’s not nearly as challenging this time (but maybe that’s just because my body has permanently adjusted to not sleeping!) Thanks for reading!

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