Mama’s Girl: Our journey with a high-need baby

posted by Andrea | 09/11/2013

To say that my little girl loves her mama is such a huge UNDER-exaggeration, it’s almost funny… almost!

I’ve alway been a very independent person, and growing up, I would often say that I NEVER wanted to have “clingy” children. I wanted my kids to be able to easily play with other kids, to love having a baby sitter (we had amazing baby sitters growing up and really did love them), and to look forward to time away from Mom and Dad.

And while I know Nora is not quite 2 years old yet and still has a lot of growing up to do, her ultra-clingy, needs-her-mama-ALL-the-time personality has made these last 2 years pretty challenging for my overly-independent self.

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Life with Nora has been a struggle for me from the moment she was born.

In fact, I can still vividly remember laying in my hospital bed that first night. She was hardly even 12 hours old when the nurse brought her to me saying, “we can’t get her to stop crying; I think you should just hold her for a bit.”

The moment Nora reached my arms, she stopped crying… and although I was exhausted, I remember feeling such a huge sense of pride that my baby “knew” her mama.

brand new

And then the same thing happened the 2nd night in the hospital. I was so tired from not sleeping much the night before, and I could tell the nurse felt horrible — but Nora just would not stop crying.

Then we took Nora home, and after relentlessly trying to “force” her to sleep in her crib, in her swing, in her carseat, or in her bouncy chair, we quickly realized that everyone slept a whole lot better if I slept on the couch with Nora on my chest (and to this day, that is still one of the easiest ways to get her to sleep.)

She’s even figured out how to adjust and make room for the new baby :)

sleeping on mama

Over the next many months, I came to realize that Nora was one “special” baby. She loved her mama more than most babies — and not necessarily in the cute cuddly way you might all be envisioning.

all wrapped up

Picture endless screaming any time I left her with Dave or with her grandparents for short periods of time. Picture violent fits any time I took a shower, went to the bathroom, or even left the room while she was awake (even if another grownup was playing with her).

Neither Dave nor I had much parenting experience (a.k.a. we had NO idea what we were doing) but it didn’t take long for us to realize that her behavior was NOT normal — especially as she got older and nothing seemed to improve.

We tried getting involved in a couple play groups, interacting with some neighbor kids, and inviting other kids over to our house; but Nora would just freak out and cling to me the entire time.

We tried regularly leaving her for very short periods of time with close family and friends; but we would always come home to a snotty nosed baby who was so exhausted from screaming, that after a while, I didn’t enjoy myself when I was out. Thankfully I’m a major home-body so I didn’t feel trapped staying at home — at least in the beginning.

It was so bad that we couldn’t even put her in nursery at church because her screaming was disruptive for the other kids and super overwhelming for the adults.

Yes, this cute little face is only THAT happy when she’s with me :)

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After 17 months of almost never being away from Nora for more than a couple hours (and starting to feel like I was literally going insane, losing my whole identity, and failing miserably at parenting) I learned about a new therapy program that was much more economical than our current therapy program and much closer to home.

We started the following week and one of the first things the therapist told me was that Nora was SUPER high-needs and had major sensory issues. 

Seriously, I had talked with numerous doctors and therapists and no one had ever told me this before.

Our new therapist sent me a link to an article: 12 Features of a High Need Baby — and I read the entire thing nodding and saying “yes”, “yes”, “yes!”

If you don’t feel like reading the entire article, I’ll sum it up for you — High Need babies are NOT like other babies.

They are (as the article states) intense, hyper-active, demanding, and completely draining.

They feed frequently (like ALL the time!) and awake frequently.

They are unsatisfied, unpredictable, unable to self-sooth, and super sensitive.

They require constant attention, they don’t like to be put down, and they have severe separation anxiety.

So for those of you who know Nora — or for those of you who have read my blog posts about her and about motherhood these past 2 years – does any of this sound familiar?

It’s like that article was written specifically to describe Nora!

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I hardly finished the article before I yelled for Dave to come read it too. We looked at each other after he finished reading it, and it was like a light bulb went off.

We hadn’t royally messed up. We hadn’t ruined our child. We hadn’t failed in our desperate attempts to implement the (mostly) well-meaning suggestions from friends, family, doctors, therapists, and parenting books.

After 17 months (and for the FIRST time since Nora was born) we finally realized that we were not horrible parents. We just had a “horrible” child :) (said in jest, but also kind of true!)

While Dave and I breathed two humongous sighs of relief,  I continued to scour the internet for more information about high-need babies — and of course, we continued our therapy program.

After two more therapy sessions (with homework in between) we could already tell a big difference. The difference was so obvious that our therapist told us to take a couple months off (yes, after just 3 sessions total) and just work on the homework exercises she gave us over the summer.

So for the past couple months, we’ve been rubbing and massaging Nora’s skin with a special “brush”, and Nora has been listening to special music on her headphones — isn’t she cute!

These homework assignments might sound like nothing — and yes, they are super easy to do — but I can’t tell you the difference they are already making in our lives.

There is a light at the end of this long tunnel!

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These are the changes we’ve noticed in just 3 short months:

1. Almost immediately, she started taking daily naps (she never took naps before). It’s still not great, but I’ll take 30-45 minutes over nothing any day!

2. She cries SO much less — around us and around others.

3. She was able to stay home with Dave for large chunks of the day this summer without getting anxious or crying for hours — this might sound ridiculous, but it’s a big accomplishment for us.

4. At 18 months, she finally started accepting people food without throwing up or freaking out (she refused all baby food, people food, formula, and even breast milk from a bottle before this).

5. She finally stopped nursing completely after 21 very VERY long months (this is a long story for another day, but I did write about it eventually.)

6. At 19 months, she made it through her very first church nursery with no tears!

7. At 20 months, she sat on my grandparent’s laps voluntarily (she’s been scared of them since birth)

8. She has let Dave put her to bed twice now — which means there is hope that I will eventually be able to attend evening functions like meetings and social events (if anyone ever invites me out again!)

9. As of a month ago, she is now OK with Dave comforting her in the middle of the night — which means we can share the sleeplessness for a change :)

10. She has been more willing to play by herself and much more willing to interact with other kids (as long as I’m still around)

11. She willingly and excitedly plays with our 9th grade neighbor girl (who loves babies) even if Dave and I are inside or in a different part of the yard.

surprise face

I realize that those of you with “normal” kids must think we are absolutely insane (believe me, sometimes we feel insane) but this is huge, HUGE progress for Nora and for us.

Although we still have a long way to go (like the fact that she still wakes up several times EVERY SINGLE night), just knowing that we’re making continual positive improvement is so reassuring.

I finally feel like I can live my life (or at least a few hours of my life) without worrying over how difficult Nora is being for Dave, for our parents, or for a babysitter.

I no longer have horrible dreams about what Dave would do if something ever happened to me.

I no longer have tons of anxiety about Sunday mornings, family gatherings, or outings with friends.

I no longer feel completely trapped and suffocated.

I no longer feel like I have to do everything alone — Dave can FINALLY help with childcare, mealtimes, and late nights.

I don’t think I have to tell any of you how amazing it feels! 

So with a 2nd surprise baby on the way, I can’t help but wonder if he or she will be super high needs like Nora, or if we’ll actually get to experience what it’s like to have a “normal” infant in the house.

Of course I hope that our next child will not be a high need baby — but if he/she is, I know it will be easier than it was with Nora. We’ll be able to detect the signs, we’ll start therapy MUCH earlier, and (most importantly) we won’t feel like complete parenting failures for 17 long months.

Yes, our little girl is healthy, happy (most of the time), cuter than cute, and full of life. She makes us laugh all the time — and I mean REALLY laugh. I also realize that compare to some families, our “issues” are teeny tiny. I suppose it’s just different when you’re living it every day (and every night!)

I’d never give Nora back… but sometimes I wish we could have those first 17 months of her life back to do over again.

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After reading this post, if you feel like you might have a high need baby, please know that there is NOTHING you did or didn’t do to make your child that way. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek help — I can’t tell you what a transformation our therapy program has made in our lives!

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147 comments

  1. Verity

    09/15/2013

    Thank you for the wonderful article!

    I think your journey the last couple years has been an encouragement to many moms. (with or without high needs babies.)

    My sister’s 2nd is a high needs toddler, and my sister was wondering where she could learn more about the therapy. (I’ve sent her several of your articles on Nora the last year, and she was just thankful to relate to another mom with a challenging child!)

    Is there an internet source or a specific name to google to find the therapy???

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  2. DeeDee Moore

    09/17/2013

    http://highneeds.wordpress.com/

    Interesting blog, but it looks like she took some time off for a while to concentrate on high needs toddler. It’s been 11 months since she posted. :)

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    Shelby Reply:

    DeeDee….

    Who are you talking about? Andrea writes her blog every day at least once! And even if she did take off 11 months, that’s her prerogative. I cannot imagine what she goes through…it sounds exhausting

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    Andrea Reply:

    Shelby, DeeDee is talking about the women who’s blog she linked to in her comments. THAT is the lady who took 11 months off :)

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  3. charlene

    09/19/2013

    One of my daughters had a high needs baby. A friend finally told her about a book that had worked for someone else. It involves a higher sensory perception than “normal” babies. There is also a weighted blanket that is made by grandmas that she put on the baby after he fell asleep. That’s when he was 3 and slept through the night from then on. you also have to tell him 10 minutes or so ahead of time if you are going somewhere. Can’t just say “get in the car.” He has to know about it. The super clue was Omega 3 liquid for children. They can definitely tell within a day if they run out! This is not something usually tested for during routine checkups. I only wish I had thought to tell you way back when you first had Nora! I have followed from the beginning and always thought she was adorable. Now I understand your frustration because I watched it in my family. My husband and I babysat grandson for a few days at 3 yr old and were terrified he would have one of his fits (we made sure he didn’t but were wrecks ourselves. Sorry this is long, just hope it helps. jPlease don’t prlnt last name)

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    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Charlene,
    Just wondering, what does the Omega 3 liquid do?

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  4. charlene loudermilk

    09/19/2013

    Andrea, my daughter found out that some people aren’t born with the ability to make enough Omega 3. It worked for her son. A nurse suggested that she take him off the supplement to see what would happen. Laurie knew what would happen – she would be right back where she started, which was not good. She lives in another state and I was there just before she started the Omega 3 and next time I saw my grandson, it was amazing! You can by it at health food stores in the refrigerated section and there is one made just for children. This all happened when he turned 3 and he had not started talking yet. The “hissy fits” were also quite amazing! Within a very short time, the difference was amazing and now he is 6 and completely caught up. I often think if she hadn’t found about the Omega 3 he would of ended up in special ed and his life would have turned out entirely different – over something that simple!
    This might not be the case with Nora but thought it was worth mentioning. She sure is cute!

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  5. Judy

    10/01/2013

    I too have a first born daughter that was very high maintenance. She too was under sensitive to touch and needed much more sensory input than other kids. It took us until she was almost 2 to learn more about it, no one we knew had a child who had sensory issues. We are so thankful for early intervention programs and a great OT who taught us how to get her what she. And yes we slept with her on our chest for many many many nights so that we could get some sleep. Worn out. And daughter #2, born 3 days before daughter #1 second bday, was a breeze. I finally realized how “easy” a baby could be. Hang in there.

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  6. Kasey

    10/05/2013

    I came across your site and can totally relate to your battle with Nora. Our situation is a little different because my little girl is pretty content as in not much crying as long as she is getting attention, from anyone. If I go out at night to go out with some friends, I have anxiety the whole time…and she fusses the whole time. She is in our bed every. single. night. Because she won’t stay asleep any other way. I am so glad to hear that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. On the other side of that though, I know time goes soooo fast and I am soaking up all the sleepless nights as long as weary as they might seem. Thank you for being honest on your blog and sharing. :)

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  7. Chris

    01/08/2014

    I just came across your site for the first time, and was drawn to the post about Nora’s trouble sleeping. I have 2 boys who did not sleep well for years. Consequently, I did not get a full nights sleep for about 6 years (while working full time). I found that strep was a HUGE factor. . The boys would have strep without any outward symptoms (and they were too little to communicate)– I finally discovered that not sleeping through the night was a symptom. There is a lot of information about an autoimmune disorder triggered by strep called PANDAS that you might want to explore if you haven’t already ruled it out. The best behavior modification tool that has helped is the Good Nite Lite http://www.goodnitelite.com/. Hang in there, it will get better.

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  8. Susan

    02/19/2014

    What sensory listening program did she use? Did you feel like it made a difference?

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    Andrea Reply:

    I have no idea — it was just some songs the therapist downloaded onto our mp3 player. They didn’t have titles and it wasn’t music I recognized — just music. Sorry I can’t be more helpful!

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    susan Reply:

    No worries at all! Thanks for replying. Do you still use it and do the brushing? How is she doing now at 2 with her sensory issues?

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    Andrea Reply:

    We haven’t been doing the music or brushing much lately. We started to find that the brushing was making her REALLY hyper and very active — so sometimes we actually do the brushing before we go somewhere with lots of people. She seems to be more willing to interact with them (weird I know). The music and brushing did work at times, but neither were a real “fix” for our situation.

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  9. Beth

    02/28/2014

    It was very surreal reading this post about your high need daughter. I have 8 children. The first 6 were born in 8yrs, so they have a very close age range. Baby #7 and #8 were born 5 yrs and 8 yrs after our youngest. I thought maybe their “high need” differences, compared to our others, were due to the gap in our parenting. Maybe we were just getting soft in our old age???

    Your descriptions of Nora were like you were describing my 2 youngest daughters. In fact, Nora is 2wks younger than my 8th child.

    Thank you so much for sharing this part of your parenting journey, challenging though it has been. I *know* it will be helpful to other mamas and daddies.

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  10. Naomi

    04/06/2014

    I just commented on a later post about the sensory issues and my Nora…this post one made me cry though. It’s almost identical to our experience… The crying and the sleeping… I still don’t go out often and we only go to church twice a month to avoid the drama…. Anyway I just wanted to say thank you for sharing, I feel like I’m not alone, or crazy or unreasonable in avoiding a lot of other social situations.

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  11. Katelin Reagh

    04/06/2014

    You are wonderful, patient, kind mother and a huge blessing to your children. Great job! I hope this isn’t too personal, but have you tried any kind of massage with Nora? You of course would be the one administer massage to your child, not a stranger, but she might find it relaxing. I’ve been a therapist for 12 years and I know parent administered massage is often a wonderful way to soothe fussy & uncomfortable infants, it’s also an excellent way to alert the body it’s time for sleep. I was curious what a high needs toddler might think. If this doesn’t seem too strange to you, maybe look up infant / child massage in your area? Usually they are classes taught to parents by professionals. They teach gentle, parent administered, calming & safe massage to specific acupressure points on baby (in hands / feet etc.). If you give it a try, be sure whomever you are learning from is a licensed professional who is experienced with child / infant massage and stop if anything seems uncomfortable to you or Nora. I would also recommend asking your current doctor or therapist what they think prior to trying anything new, as they will be best at determining if this is something that is right for Nora. I hope you find this info helpful & not pushy, I’m not expressing any kind of medical opinion or advice, but sometimes simple ideas are a life saver. You are doing many parents a great service by discussing your experiences with a high needs baby so openly. I’m so happy you are having such wonderful breakthroughs with Nora. I love your blog & I think you are a very brave & strong woman.

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  12. Ted Olivas

    04/09/2014

    Andrea, I have been reading your blog a few months now and have related to many of your posts. After looking over some of your older posts, this is one that has really hit home lately. My wife and I have three wonderful daughters, each with their own personalities and characters. But the newest addition t our family is definitely falling into this high need category. She smiles at everyone and is definitely a happy and silly girl. But that happiness leaves the instant she is put down. This is our third child, so it’s always interesting when a well meaning stranger in a waiting room or at a store says,” don’t hold her so much, you’ll spoil her.” lol, I jut respond, ” I’m her dad. It’s my job to spoil her. It’s easier than explaining we might possibly know what we’re doing! So the accommodations are made. She will only go to sleep For daddy, yet prefers to sleep WITH mommy. Translation: I let her fall asleep in my arms on the sofa, then place her in bed with mom once asleep. Another source of well-meaning, yet unsolicited scorning. I love her with all my heart, hih maintenance and all. Even if she’s taken over my half of the bed!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks for sharing your story Ted — sounds like our little girls are very similar!

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