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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