Parenting a High Needs Baby

All babies are hard, there’s no denying that. They are entirely dependent upon their parents for everything and all their basic needs, and they don’t sleep through the night for a while. But what’s it like to parent a baby who just seems like so much more than everyone else?

We affectionately refer to my daughter as “spirited.” Even in he womb, she never seemed to stop moving, and has hated transitions and change of any kind (from birth, she has absolutely abhorred having her diaper and/or clothes changed). She never wanted to be put down, and our swing and bouncer (that I spent AGES picking out after meticulous research and pros and cons lists), went unused, because there was no substitute for our arms. She was in constant motion, ticked off immediately if something wasn’t going her way, hard to soothe, and just seemed like she was so much more than my friends’ babies who were around the same age. I thought I was doing something wrong, because I couldn’t even put her down without her getting upset, and she contact napped until she was around 10 months old because she’d wake up immediately if I put her down. Her emotions were intense and swift, and she just seemed to feel everything deeply and intensely. We swore she was teething for months before a tooth finally popped through when she was around 5 months old – her pediatrician had told us there were some teeth moving around in her gums but weren’t ready to pop out yet at one of her checkups – but she very clearly had pain in her jaw and gums. 

I thought I was doing something wrong – why couldn’t I put her down for a nap? Why did she cry all the time? Was she broken?

One day I stumbled upon the term “high needs baby” on the internet and when I read the criteria, it was like a lightbulb suddenly came on. According to Dr. Bill Sears, who coined the term high needs baby, the 12 characteristics are intense, hyperactive, draining, feeds frequently, awakens frequently, demanding, unsatisfied, unpredictable, super sensitive, hates being put down, not a self-soother, and separation sensitive. It sounded like my daughter! Researching further, I found Dr. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka and her series of books on raising spirited babies and children. She prefers “spirited” to “high needs” because it has a more positive connotation, and believes that those personality traits that drive parents nuts when they’re babies become strengths as those babies grow into children and adults. Reading her books and blogs was a relief because she reiterates that spirited babies are in a state of increased arousal, that there was nothing I did or didn’t do that caused her to be that way, and that I wasn’t making it up – she was harder than a non-spirited baby. 

While it was a relief to know that I wasn’t crazy, wasn’t imagining things, and that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, parenting a spirited baby was still really effing hard. She needed constant reassurance and a lot of soothing. We went through a period where she absolutely hated her carseat and it would take both me and my husband to get her in there (one to hold her down, the other to buckle the straps). Transitions took all kinds of working up to, including letting her check out her convertible carseat before it went in the car when we were getting ready to switch and not being able to successfully sleep train her and put her down for bed awake until she was a year old (and she still can’t put herself to sleep for naps). 

She gets overwhelmed and overstimulated easily, which made holidays particularly difficult. This past Thanksgiving and Christmas she got so overwhelmed at my mother-in-law’s house that she didn’t eat lunch (and my girl LOVES to eat) and screamed inconsolably when we tried to get her to take a nap. She doesn’t like to be messed with, and she’s stuck to me like Velcro when she’s in a new place or somewhere she’s not comfortable with, and God help you if you try and take her away from me before she’s assessed the situation and decided she’s cool with it.  

She has big feelings and emotions, just like I do. And while that means the tantrums and push-back from her are intense, that means when she’s in a good mood, she lights up the entire room she’s in and she is pure joy. She feels all of her emotions truly and deeply, which means she’s a pure ball of shrieking, excited delight when she’s happy. She’s goofy and so expressive and full of light, and I’ll take that any day. 

Now that she’s older, she’s gotten better about transitions and experiencing new things, and Easter this year she was an absolute dream, easygoing and enjoying her egg hunts and not a fit in sight until the very tail end of the weekend. With every milestone she has met that has gotten her closer to independence, the happier she has become. I honestly think she just didn’t like being a baby and was made to be a toddler. All of those rough patches were worth it for this – this happy, vivacious, joyful toddler who makes me smile and laugh every day. 

There were many, many times I thought I was failing and that there wasn’t anything I could do to make her happy. I realize now that she is a lot like me, that she feels things intensely like I do, but she’s 2 and I’m 31, and I’ve spent years figuring out my high sensitivity and big emotions and how to work with them, and she hasn’t (because she developmentally can’t). My husband and I are working on teaching her that her sensitivity and ability to feel so deeply are strengths and not weaknesses, and that there is no part of her that she needs to hide or shut down. 

If you also have a spirited baby or child, I’ll leave you with Dr. Sheedy Kurcinka’s credo on spirited kids (it brought me a lot of reassurance when I was in the thick of it!): 

  • You are not alone (she estimates about 20% of kids are considered spirited). 
  • There is nothing you did or didn’t do that made your child spirited. It’s just how they’re wired.
  • It’s not your imagination that you are working harder.
  • It is important to be compassionate to yourself and give yourself grace.
  • Celebrate and enjoy the delights of your spirited child. 

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