Holding On With a High Needs Baby

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.

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.

22 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you. This article made me cry. I read this as I lay here in hour two of my daily night time nursing session, while my high needs 10 week old “sleep nurses” on me. God forbid I try to unlatch her. This has given me hope that there is a light at the end and that I am correct in feeling like she is insanely smart. (I think already smarter than my spouse and I.)

  2. Wow! I loved this post! So relatable! My baby girl is 7 months old and I just finally realized she’s a high needs baby unlike any other baby I’ve ever encountered! Trying to keep her busy to avoid a full on cry fit is the hardest for me! I’m constantly trying to switch up activities so that I don’t have to hold her ALL day!

  3. This made me cry. Thank you for this article. Mine is 6 months old, and only just a few weeks ago did I realise that he is a high needs child. Makes me feel so much better to know that I’m not alone. Because sometimes it feels that I am (you know, all your friends’ kids are sleeping, can be left alone to play by themselves etc). Mine hates being carried in a sling, it restricts his movement and he get annoyed super easily. I’m still coping. I still am not able to leave the house for longer than an hour, but it’s something, right? To all the moms of a HNB – hang in there, this too shall pass (I hope!)

  4. Thanks for that article. So good to know that you’re not alone, because you know how it feels: all your friends baby sleep through the night, can play by themselves etc.. my baby is 6 months old now and only a few weeks ago did I figure out that he was a high-needs baby and it made life easier, because before that I thought everything I did was wrong. I was rocking him to sleep, I was feeding him whenever he was crying, I was basically trying to do everything right and keep him happy, and yet, it felt I was the worst mother there was and that I did everything wrong, because now he cannot fall asleep without me Rocking him. Ok, I admit, first 3 months were a nightmare because he has such horrible colic pains and he was screaming on days end. it was so hard, exhausting and frustrating. I also had a severe postpartum depression but anyways its all in past now, he’s been better but it’s so good to know that I’m not alone because sometimes it just feel like you are. I do hope it will get better with the sleep…I still cannot leave the house for more than one hour but it’s something, right. oh, he also hates being carried in a sling or Carrier it restricts his movement and makes him so frustrated so I have to carry him all the time on my hands, but he is the cutest when he laughs or when he’s happy so I just hope I’ll find the right approach to get to know him better. Unfortunately, I have not seen any references or any support groups in my country for parents with HNB, but thank God there is the internet where I can find articles like this one that help me live another day, thank you for that it’s very inspiring!

  5. Lovely article. I have a high needs baby and this article was really helping me to think that at one stage this situation will pass too.

  6. Tears are pooling at the rim of my eyelids. Thank you so much for your vulnerability in sharing your truth about raising your daughter. Often times I feel stuck in a groundhog’s day with my daughter. One where she will stay forever fussy, difficult to manage, and impossible to meet her un-vocalized needs. Not only are your words are encouraging, they give me hope and allow me to be excited for my six month’s future! On exceptionally difficult days like today, your words are much needed. Thank you.

  7. I cried my eyes out while reading.. Yes , it made me hope for the future of my high need son.. But I wonder the reason? and cannot stop myself blaming. did I do something wrong? or if ı was stressfull during pregnancy?? is there any reason??is stress during pregnancy a cause??

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