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.
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.
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!
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.