8 ways to deal with your high-needs baby

Does your baby cry a lot? Is she not super adaptable? You might have a high-needs baby. Here's how to deal.

mother holding up her baby

Photo: iStockphoto

Maybe you know an easygoing baby who drifts off at the drop of a hat, sleeps peacefully even while he’s jostled from car seat to crib, and gazes at the world from his stroller with cheerful equanimity. That’s not the kind of baby Sammy was. His mom, Holly Klaassen of Abbotsford, BC, is the founder of The Fussy Baby Site, an online community for parents of high-need babies and children. She recalls, “Sammy would wake up early—any time from 4:30 to 6:30 a.m. It was very unpredictable. We never knew from day to day what time we would be getting up. And he always woke up crying—none of this lying in the crib gurgling and cooing. He woke screaming, so we were ‘on’ the second we heard him and we had to walk him around the house constantly.”

In Penticton, Ont., Laura Fisher’s high-needs baby daughter Sapphire has a big personality, too. “Sapphire has always just been ‘more.’ Even when she was six weeks old, I’d be out with other moms — their babies would sit calmly, looking around. Sapphire would be practically vibrating, staring at everything, startling at every little sound. I was constantly moving, jiggling, swaying, rocking — and, most of all, bouncing on a yoga ball. And I could never easily hand her off, even to her dad, or put her down to sleep or carry her in a car seat or push her in a stroller. Now she’s almost seven months old and she still needs to be bounced to sleep in a carrier. She is just more intense.”

It’s clear that these fussy babies’ needs are a little more complicated than the next baby’s: They cry more, have extra trouble getting to sleep, and are more sensitive to life’s discomforts. Jane White, a public health nurse with the Healthy Babies Healthy Children program at Niagara Region, Ont., explains, “A sensitive baby may need to suckle more, might need to be held, walked or rocked more.” These needs are related to the baby’s individual temperament, White explains. “Every child is born with a set of temperament traits that determine how she responds to stimulation, how easily she can self-soothe, what her feeding, sleeping and sucking patterns are, and how she reacts to new situations.”

Judy Arnall, Calgary parent educator and author of Discipline Without Distress, knows it can be unnerving to realize you have a high-needs baby. She says, “New parents may blame themselves: ‘What did I do? Did something happen when I was pregnant?’ Or they think somehow their anxiety is causing the baby to be that way. I know. My fifth baby was off the charts. If I hadn’t had four babies before him, I would have thought, ‘Oh no! What am I doing wrong?’”

Nobody is doing anything wrong. Your baby is not being impossible, and you are not failing at parenting! Arnall says, “About 15 percent of babies are just born this way. Another 40 percent are easygoing. There is everything in between, too.” Arnall is emphatic that parents not shoulder guilt about their high-needs baby’s temperament: “There is nothing you can do to make a high-needs baby. Or to change one. Nothing!”

Still, as you and your baby come to know each other (and in time, as your child comes to understand her own needs and develops more skills), life becomes easier to manage and more predictable. Fisher says, “For us, a breakthrough happened when Sapphire was about 5½ months and started crawling—and then standing, cruising and using sign language, all very early. She’s so much happier with her new-found independence.”

And Sammy? He’s the life of the party. At almost four, he’s dramatic, sensitive but surprisingly easygoing — and he has a huge contagious smile, says his mom. “There is hope! I often tell people I wouldn’t trade Sammy for anything. The temperament traits we saw in him as a baby are what make him such a fun, charming, exuberant little boy now. You can’t help but laugh when you’re with him!”

Balancing needs
It’s important to be kind to yourself as you care for a high-needs baby—you have needs, too. You are experiencing intense parenting, meeting more challenges than the parents of the sleepy little infant next door.

1. Try to set aside unrealistic expectations. Klaassen says, “Parents tell me it’s most helpful to come to terms with the fact that their baby is not the baby they thought they were going to have. Accept that ‘our baby is more intense, passionate and persistent than we expected, but these traits will serve her well when she grows up. This is who she is.’”

2. Learn to read your baby’s cues. “Figure out what makes your baby tick,” says White. “If he stops crying when you pick him up, that’s your cue: He’s telling you he needs Mom to pick him up.” He may have strong preferences, meaning you have to sort out likes and dislikes that other parents don’t think about: “You may have to try out several carriers to find one your baby likes,” says Arnall. “Sometimes these babies don’t like certain fabrics.” It takes time to learn what your baby is telling you — try to be patient with the process.

3. Meet your baby’s needs. Arnall urges, “Don’t be afraid to cater to what your baby needs.” Fisher adds, “Don’t listen to people’s advice unless they truly know your situation and have had their own challenging child. What worked for their baby won’t necessarily work for yours.”

4. Take care of the basics. You need food, rest and company. Ask for help. This can be hard if your baby is difficult for others to soothe. But Arnall urges, “You have to find someone you trust who can tolerate the fallout when you leave — these babies don’t want substitute caregivers. The baby may cry while you’re gone, but if you’re sure your caregiver can manage and comfort him, then you need that break.” Klaassen also suggests hiring an overnight babysitter once in a while, if you can arrange it, so you can have a night’s rest.

5. Get out! Klaassen says, “We found that Sammy did best when we were out and about with him, so for the first year, we got up, got my daughter Aliya up, and went out. When we were at home, he wasn’t stimulated enough.” This is also a way to make adult connections. Klaassen urges, “Try to maintain some kind of adult life. Take your baby and be around other parents — preferably parents who have similar kids, if you can find them.” It is extremely reassuring to realize that you are not the only one loving a high-needs baby.

6. Include Dad. Fisher says the participation of her husband, Haley, was vital for managing her high-needs baby. “Dad should help as much as possible. If the baby won’t go with Dad, then he can bring water to a nursing mom and take over the cooking and cleaning.”

7. Have a backup plan. Keep a couple of numbers by the phone so you can call in some backup if you are feeling overwhelmed by the constant care your fussy baby needs.

8. Recognize you and your baby are a team. You’re on the same side, trying to understand each other. Fisher says, “Having a baby who is so clear about what she wants and what she doesn’t want has really strengthened our bond.” As tough as this time may be, Fisher advises other parents to try and hold the moment: “Your baby will only be a baby for a short time, so go for it as much as you can—relax and snuggle, carry the baby and slow way down to be with her. You’ll be OK!”

Is your baby high-need?

Some characteristics:
• doesn’t schedule easily; has difficulty getting into a pattern of sleeping and may also be unpredictable in eating and pooping patterns

• very active; even during sleep, moves all over the crib

• doesn’t like to be isolated or confined in a crib, car seat or carrier

• very sensitive to touch and holding; doesn’t like to be put down or left alone—needs the physical attachment of being held (On the other hand, some high-need babies don’t like to be touched—swaddling is out for these babies.)

• not very adaptable; doesn’t like to be passed around and doesn’t accept substitute care easily

• can’t self-soothe if upset

• doesn’t like a lot of noise or stimulation (A day at a busy mall may result in a night of crying as baby tries to recover from too much stimulation. Alternatively, some high-need babies seem to need extra stimulation and are happier out of the house.)

• cries a lot, often waking from naps crying hard
Parenting educator Judy Arnall suggests that if your baby shows strong tendencies toward five of these traits, he’s probably on the high-need end of the scale.

Health check
If your baby cries a lot and you don’t know why, you’ll want to have your health care provider rule out medical causes.

Colic, for example, often follows a pattern. Parent educator Judy Arnall explains, “A baby with colic tends to cry for four hours a day for the first four months—then he starts to get better. There is no set amount of crying time each day for a high-need baby.”

Public health nurse Jane White adds, “If the baby seems to be in pain or has long periods of crying and nothing Mom or Dad can do settles the baby, it might something different—an illness or a tummy ache.”

A baby with an ear infection may fall asleep on your shoulder, but wake screaming when he’s horizontal in his crib because of the pressure change in his ear. And, White adds, “it’s recommended that parents always get up to check on a baby who cries in the night. Touch the baby to monitor his temperature because infants can become ill very quickly.”

Read More:
What you need to know about your baby’s first milestones
Strategies to socialize your baby
3 signs your baby is going through a growth spurt

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