I can still remember the first time I shared about Nora’s high-needs personality on my blog. My intentions were simply to share the massive amount of relief I felt after finally figuring out a big piece of our “Nora puzzle”. I had absolutely NO comprehension of how many comments, emails, questions, and notes of encouragement that would stem from that post.
But here I am, 2.5 years later, and there is rarely a day that goes by without getting at least one email, Facebook message, or comment on a blog post asking a question about high-needs babies or sending positive words of encouragement my way. It is AMAZING!
The support I have felt from so many other parents who really truly “get it” has done wonders for my mental and emotional state; and I can’t even begin to tell you how fabulous it is for me to be able to help other moms, dads, and caregivers who randomly find my blog after doing a Google search for “high-needs baby” or “difficult baby” or “sensory issues”.
Most of the emails and message start off something like this:
“Hi Andrea, you don’t know me, but I found your blog the other day when I was searching for information about my baby who just seems to cry ALL the time. I’ve been scouring your blog and reading all the posts about Nora — and I finally feel like I’m not a horrible parent. I’m not totally messing up or doing everything wrong… my baby is just different.
For the very first time since becoming a parent, I feel like I’m not alone — someone understand what I’m going through. After staying up way too late reading more about high-needs children and sensory issues, I just had to email you to thank you for how much hope and encouragement you have given me.
Also, I have a few more questions…”
Although I often spend a large amount of time responding to these messages and trying to answer all the questions as best as I can, I feel that it is worth every moment of my time because I know how helpful it would have been for me to have that information when Nora was born.
That said, the emails and messages seem to be coming faster and more frequently, so I thought it might be time to write a blog post about the things that were most helpful for me (or things I wish I would have known 4 years ago). That way, I can direct people to this post instead of typing everything out over and over again 🙂
Nora and I have made it through A LOT together these past 4 years… and while there are still very tough moments (and days) with her, we have made so much progress! In fact, the extremely long days of holding and bouncing and rocking and feeding and sleeping with a screaming infant are (almost) just a distant memory.
I know that if WE can make it through, YOU CAN TOO!
This post is extremely long… but I wanted to include as many details and as many examples from our own life as I could.
There are a bunch of helpful websites and resources listed at the end of the post — and if you’re a caregiver to a high-needs child, I’d LOVE it if you would share some of your tips, struggles, triumphs, or words of wisdom in the comments. You never know who might read them or how they could positively affect someone else’s parenting journey!
Also, I must state the obvious — these are things that worked for OUR family. They are suggestions based on my own personal experiences. While I certainly hope some of them will be helpful for other families, I can’t guarantee anything.
This post focuses mainly on dealing with a high-needs BABY. I hope to do a future post about tips for dealing with a high-needs toddler — because we all know it doesn’t get any easier at 2 or 3. However, that will have to wait for another (extremely long) post of its own.
Without further adieu, here are my tips!
1. Touch and hold them as much as possible.
This list isn’t really in any specific order… however, I put this as #1 because for me, it was one of the only reasons I was able to get through that first year with Nora.
High-needs babies want and need to be held and touched almost constantly. They are physically unable to self-soothe themselves (a.k.a. crying it out will NEVER work with them). And since they are so easily startled by loud noises, strange faces, bright lights, strong smells, etc. they need to know you are there to protect and comfort them.
If I could change one thing about the first few months of Nora’s life, I would have invested in my Boba baby carrier with the first baby instead of the second, and I would have worn her ALL DAY LONG. After all, I basically held her all day anyway, so I would have just saved myself a bunch of back pain! In fact, I held her so much that I’m positive there were many days when some part of Nora was touching some part of me for about 23.5 hours in a 24 hour period… and you better believe she was screaming during that 30-minute period when I wasn’t holding her (usually to go to the bathroom, take a shower, and make dinner).
Even now, Nora is almost 4, and she still LOVES to be held and cuddled (especially by me). It is still extremely difficult for her to calm down on her own — and even though I get beyond frustrated with her at times, I know that if I want her to calm down and stop crying, I must hold her. Often, she’ll come find me when she’s really upset and say something like, “I just can’t get myself calm. Can you hold me?”
Too often, I let myself get frustrated by the fact that she can’t just go have a time-out when she’s naughty or “brush herself off” when she gets hurt (like Simon is so good at doing). It’s draining to say the least, but if I take a deep breath, give her a big hug, and just let her sit on my lap or snuggle with me for a few minutes, she calms down so much faster.
2. Plan ahead – and tell them the plan.
You know how much I love planning ahead — and this was the one part of my pre-baby life that REALLY helped after having a high-needs baby. I got really good at knowing how much Nora could handle in a day and planning for excuses to leave something early when I could tell she had enough or was getting overwhelmed.
I also got good at planning when she would need to eat and where I could go to feed her. High-needs babies often eat every couple of hours all day long — which is totally obnoxious and overwhelming, but there’s most likely nothing you can do to change this. I think part of it is because nursing is very soothing for them, and as I mentioned above, they constantly need to be soothed.
Along with planning ahead, I have always tried to TELL Nora everything that was going to happen and what she could expect. Even before she could understand what we were saying, I tried to explain everything so she knew what to expect.
For example, when Nora was a baby, she wasn’t fond of bath time… until I started explaining the process to her. She was only about a month old, but I would narrate the entire process.
“OK Nora, we’re going to take a bath now. Mommy is going to get the water ready and then we’ll take your clothes and diaper off. See the water? It’s nice a warm.
Now that your clothes are off, let’s put your feet in the water. Doesn’t it feel good? Ok, now let’s put your body in and get some soap. And now let’s rinse you off.
It’s time to dry off with the towel and then we’re going back to the nursery for a new diaper and your pajamas.”
I realize how ridiculous that might sound — but I am positive it was helpful for us (and yes, I still do this with almost everything that involves Nora — school, church, playing with friends, going to the store, going to a strange place, meeting new people, etc.)
3. Give up ALL preconceived notions of the “right way” to parent.
I don’t care what the parenting books say, I don’t care what your friends say, I don’t even care what your mom says, because if they never parented a high-needs child, they CAN NOT UNDERSTAND.
Before I became a mom, I knew just how I was going to mother my children… I would get them on a schedule ASAP, get them sleeping through the night ASAP, and I wouldn’t feed them more than every 3 or 4 hours, and they would be well behaved. Then Nora arrived and all of that flew right out the window!
Although I tried for months, she refused to adapt to any sort of regular schedule during the day, she was the most awful sleeper ever, and as I mentioned above, she literally ate every 2 hours all day long (sometimes more). Oh, and my definition of “well behaved” has significantly changed since she entered my life!
It was VERY humbling for me… because after all, I was the queen of schedules and organization, and I felt like my life was just spiraling out of control with no set schedule to any of my days and a baby who cried ALL. DAY. LONG!
Once I finally let go of all those preconceived notions of how I would or should parent our children, I was much happier and less stressed… and you better believe my happier, less stressed attitude transferred over to Nora as well (highly sensitive children are very attuned to their parent’s emotions and stress levels).
Yes, my cheeks still burn bright red when she throws a fit about something ridiculous in a public setting, and her strong-willed, insanely stubborn personality pushes me to my limits every day, but I no longer let myself be defined by Nora’s behavior. She is who she is and it is not a true picture of my parenting abilities.
4. Sleep whenever, wherever, and however you possibly can.
I always joked that I could have handled a high-needs baby so much easier if I just didn’t need to sleep!
Often times, high-needs babies will not need very much sleep at all — Nora definitely fell into this category. She took a few catnaps every day when she was an infant, but by the time she was 12-15 months old, she was completely done with naps. That might not sound so horrible except that she was rarely in bed before 11:00pm, she was almost always awake before 7:00am, and awoke CONSTANTLY all throughout the night (sometimes 8-10 times a night).
By the time she was 9 months old, I literally felt like I was going to die of sleep deprivation. I was the thinnest I had been since my Freshman year in high school (almost 25 pounds less than my normal weight now), my eyes looked so tired, and I was in a constant state of pure exhaustion. There were many days when I would just lock Nora and myself in her bedroom and I would lay down on the floor and fall asleep while she played on the floor next to me. Even now, looking back, I’m still not sure how I lived with so little sleep for so long. I honestly don’t know if I could have done it if we had other children to care for at the time.
Because Nora absolutely refused to sleep in her crib, and because I was so SO tired, we opted to transfer our little 9 month old baby into a “big girl bed” on the floor. I slept with her EVERY single night, ALL night long, and both of us finally started getting some sleep. We slept this way from 9 months through about 25 months when we moved her to her new bedroom upstairs. By this time, Dave was able to take turns sleeping with her, and we were able to reason with her a bit more.
Once we moved her upstairs, we set a new rule that mom and dad wouldn’t sleep with her in the bed. This meant we often just slept on the floor in her room… but slowly, things started to get better and we were able to come back to our own bed for at least part of the night. And then, just a couple months after her 3rd birthday, she slept through the night for the very first time!
Now, at almost 4, she goes to bed relatively easily around 8:00pm, usually sleeps through the night, and wakes up around 7:30am (yes, there is hope for all of you horribly sleep-deprived parents out there!)
However, even though she is sleeping much better at night, she still depletes SO much energy from me every day — much more than Simon or even James. She requires every ounce of patience I have on a daily basis and if I don’t get enough sleep, I have much less patience to grant to her.
If you are dealing with a non-sleeping high-needs baby, please don’t worry about what anyone else thinks of you. Just do whatever you can to get more sleep. If you don’t have other kids to tend to, I would recommend at least trying to nap with your baby at some point. Chances are you will BOTH sleep much better together.
If you DO have other children, my best advice would be to wear your high-needs baby and let them sleep in the carrier.
5. Find support.
So many of the parents I talk to feel discouraged because they have absolutely no support system. They don’t have any friends or family members who understand their situation… leaving them to feel very alone.
One of the most helpful and “therapeutic” things for me was writing the blog posts about Nora’s progress. When people would comment and send emails, I was encouraged to keep pushing forward.
If you’re looking for support, try searching your local library, community center, town hall, or just a general Google search to see if there are any play groups, mom’s groups, or other child friendly activities you could go to with a friend. You might be amazed at how many other parents out there are struggling with similar issues — and knowing that you are not alone was beyond helpful for me.
Also, even if your friends and family members can’t fully understand your situation, if they offer to help by watching your baby for a bit, bringing meals, or cleaning your house, please just accept their offer. Anything you can to do lighten your load will be worth it later on.
And if you can’t find any form of support, then send me an email and I promise that I’ll reply with something encouraging!
6. Realize that YOU know your child best and are their best advocate.
As a first-time mom, I was quite insecure about my parenting abilities and was constantly looking to others to tell me what to do. I can not tell you how many times I heard things like:
- You just need to let her cry it out
- She’ll get over it
- If she get’s hungry enough, she’ll eat (in regards to her food sensitivities)
- Stop babying her — you’re just encouraging her clinginess
- This too shall pass
- At least you have a baby
I know they were trying to help… but those words of advice really didn’t help me at all.
I felt like I had a constant internal fight going on between my brain and my heart — between what people were telling me was the “right thing” to do for Nora and what my new-mom heart felt was the “right thing” to do.
After a few months, I realized that my new-mom heart was actually pretty accurate… and I knew more about mothering than I thought it would.
I started sticking up for myself and for Nora more, and not letting others guilt me into doing something that wasn’t right for us.
For example, after I realized Nora was beyond scared of going to church nursery, I never forced her to go as I didn’t want to disrupt everything with her screaming so much. Even though all the nursery people at church told me that she could handle it and that I needed to stop being so overprotective, I just knew that leaving her in nursery would not be a positive experience for her or for me. Instead, I let her sit in the back of church with me. It took almost 2 years, but she finally warmed up to nursery and is now involved in tons of church activities with no fussing at all!
I let so many comments and advice roll off my back — about nursing her for 21 months, sleeping with her every night, and needing to be with her 24/7. I knew that I was Nora’s best advocate and I needed to “protect” her and “shield” her as much as I could to avoid massive sensory overload. Plus, the people who said those things really couldn’t comprehend.
7. Think “big picture” and “long term”.
After about a year of dealing with Nora’s antics, I was finally able to start thinking “big picture”. I could finally look down the road and rationalize that I certainly wouldn’t be dealing with her sleeplessness or unwillingness to eat for the rest of my life. After all, she would eventually go to college or at least move out of my house someday 🙂
If you’re just at the beginning of your journey, this will probably sound completely impossible — but eventually, you WILL be able to do this… and it will make such a difference for you. I wish I could have started thinking “big picture” sooner, but it really is hard for first-time parents.
Parenting a high-needs baby is hard, it’s exhausting, and it’s overwhelming. However, when you start to find your groove and emerge out of the thick sleepless fog, try to envision your life 5, 10, or 20 years down the road… and just keep reminding yourself that it really could be so much worse. For me, it helped to remind myself that a strong-willed, high-needs, sleepless child is nothing in comparison to what so many parents deal with on a daily basis. From cancer and terminal illnesses, to poverty, child abuse, or even infertility; the stress and anxiety caused by high-needs children is really such a small thing when you compare it to some of those other issues.
If you are currently parenting a high-needs baby, I hope some of the information in this post (and in the comments) will offer you help and encouragement. Or at the very least, a little reassurance that you are not a horrible parent and you are not alone!
After 4 years of many highs and lows, I can confidently say that the highs drastically outweigh the lows. Parenting Nora is quite a bit more challenging than either of our boys, but (as many of you know from reading my blog) she is one of the sweetest, funniest, smartest, cutest little people I know. I can not imagine our family without her!
A Few Helpful Resources:
FROM MY BLOG:
- Our Journey With a High-Needs Baby
- How I Dealt with Being Completely Exhausted
- How We Finally Got Nora to Sleep
- A Little Parenting Perspective and Encouragement
- Why Motherhood Sometimes Makes Me Feel Like a Failure
FROM THE INTERNET:
- 20 Survival Tips for Parents of High-Needs Children
- 12 Features of a High-Needs Baby
- 5 Reasons High-Needs Babies Sleep Differently
- How to Raise a High-Needs Baby
- How to Handle a Spirited Toddler
- Raising a Sensitive Child
- Parenting a Spirited Child (PDF)
- The Center for Childhood Development (where we did Nora’s Therapy)
- The Highly Sensitive Child
- Raising Your Spirited Child
- Spirit-Led Parenting
- The Fussy Baby Book
- Understanding the Highly Sensitive Child