A little note on mothering a “high need” child

Mind the Baby Blog, www.mindthebaby.ie, A note on mothering a high need baby
Photo courtesy of www.chirofamilial.com

I’m hoping this is going to be one of those “you’re not alone” posts and someone reads this and says “hey, that’s me!”. I think I would have liked to read about this when my baby was still a squish. It sprung to mind to write it this weekend when myself and a little boy hung out on the couch cuddling and watching too much Dora (Swiper, no swiping! Swiper, no swiping!), while a little fever overcame the smallest of us.

Mr Mind the Baby was away Saturday so it was just the two of us fighting off a high temperature, making friends with the special basin and trying to stay cool and comfortable.

No one got dressed and the house was a disgrace. Breakfast dishes were still out at 3pm, laundry languished near the machine but not in it. I made exactly three failed attempts to tend to housework that day. I think I might just have gotten the dishwasher door open each time before little feet pattered into the kitchen to find me and return me to the little nest of blankets and pillows. If I wasn’t dragged back in, mammy hugs were required and a two and a half year old on your hip does not a useful housework accessory make. All he wanted was his mother within arm’s reach and her full and complete attention. With experience behind me, I was able to shrung off my other responsibilities and tend to his needs, knowing everything else would just have to wait.

But it wasn’t always like that.

I never heard the term “high need” baby until I didn’t have a baby anymore. I think I definitely would have benefited from reading this. Don’t get me wrong, he is a perfectly normal, healthy, good humoured, wonderful pleasure of a child but he has never slept well, has always needed to be up in arms, has suffered many bouts of separation anxiety and really does need his mama an awful lot. I think the descriptions in the Dr Sears article are more extreme and “fussy” is never a word I would use to describe him – he was never colicky – but I will say that there were days (and nights) when he was a baby that I can only describe as intense.

On these days, he could not be put down under any circumstances. He needed to be in my arms. Dinners burnt or went uncooked and uneaten, vomit-covered sheets went unchanged, the house was like a bomb hit it, I was exhausted and my anxiety was at high doe as I tried to manage baby and life – and probably ended up failing both. I remember days when all I wanted to do was finish a cup of coffee – holding the cup with both my hands – and it just wasn’t possible. It seems like a small thing but at that moment it was the most important thing in the world. I needed him to sit on the floor and entertain himself for just five minutes. The frustration was hard going.

What I really needed to do was buy a baby sling I could actually use. I had a je porte mon bebe one but I never learned how to use it properly. Looking back, I think if I had tried an ergo or something more structured – or just gone to a flippin sling meet! – then straightaway both of our needs would have been met. He would have been where he needed to be and at the same time I could chop some veg or fold some clothes.

I hear my own voice now saying “yes, but the housework can wait” and it can. But those of us who have been there know that when push comes to shove, it can be hard to just let it go, especially if you’re dreading someone walking in the door wondering what you’ve been doing all day – or even just actually wanting the place to look a bit tidy. Certainly in that fourth trimester housework is not a priority at all, but when your baby is 10 or 11 months, sometimes you just want a clean house!

If I had known that a high need baby is a perfectly normal phenomenon, I would have relaxed more and worried less. I would have taken more naps. I would have done what I do now – take a deep breathe and go with it. I’ve grown into mothering a high need toddler because I understand him, myself and our family better. I regularly take naps at the weekend when he’s sleeping because why the fuck not? I’m tired and they’re lovely.

I LOVE having a night time snuggle with my little man. I wonder if there is any pleasure greater sometimes than having the warm body of a little one nestled up against you? It is no hardship any more.

But God it was.

It could have been easier if I knew what was going on.

Did you or do you have a “high need” baby? Have you any tips for mothers who might be at the start of their parenting journey?

This page is a good place to begin if you want to find out more.

19 thoughts on “A little note on mothering a “high need” child”

  1. Ah, I’ve never heard of the term ‘high need’ baby! My eldest was like that, but as soon as he hit 2.5 he became very independent. I’d like to think he is so confident because I indulged (and just about coped with) his dependency in the early years.

    The housework can wait is true, but at the same time we need fresh clothes, clean dishes and to eat. Even these basic chores as a big challenge with bub in arms. I use a sling for little one but there’s no way I could cook with him in it…he needs me to be moving constantly, or there’s screaming right in my face. That might be of some consolation to your regret…mightn’t have solved it anyway 🙂

    1. Maybe you’re right April, it could have been useless! But I do think if I had the information in the first instance it might have been a bit easier to manage, if you know what I mean?

  2. Hi Sylda as mum to a high needs baby who is still pretty highly sensitive (though now a hurricane wouldn’t wake her!!!), I can relate to a lot of what you wrote. It is intense and for the me especially the sleep deprivation was so hard. My second was so different, I remember putting him down on the playmat one day to get organised to go out and when I looked a few minutes later he had gone to sleep ALL BY HIMSELF!! He was only a few weeks old. I had heard that babies did this, but never knew it could happen really. My advice would be to go with your instincts and to get as much help and support as you can. And if you can afford it get a cleaner!!! I was lucky in that I had been reading Dr Sears The Baby book which touches on a high need baby and so reading it was so helpful. It still didn’t get to sleep though and parenting a baby like this is tough especially when we often don’t have a community of support around us that we can access easily. I do think maybe have groups like Gentle Families on FB must be a help – they weren’t around when I had my little one!

    1. A cleaner is a great suggestion Mary, I couldn’t agree with you more. They’re worth every penny and more if you can stretch to it. I think having one at the time would have made a huge difference.
      I didn’t hear about Dr Sears for a long time! I’d also highly recommend the book you mention to any parents to be.
      Thanks for sharing! x

  3. I think that every child is high needs to a certain extent & when we’re sensitive ourselves – not well/time of the month etc it grates more so it can seem like they are hanging out of us! Still I do know what you mean. My eldest was high needs due to reflux as a small baby. His younger brother was a docile wee man who was happy out whenever, now he’s a toddler however he’s extremely high needs and firmly attached to my hip only.
    Parenting is swings and roundabouts, it’ll pass (soon but not too soon I hope). Last night I sat on the nursing chair with the toddler and we sang songs, rocked back and forth and cuddled. It was something magic. I know I won’t always be able to do it so I’m trying to cherish the moments even though it’s hard to find time for myself. I hope you’re feeling much better & you have a great weekend. xxx

    1. Ah Caitriona, there is just nothing like sitting together with a smallie singing, rocking and cuddling! It’s one of life’s underestimated pleasures I think!

  4. This was my world for more years than I would like to remember. Two of my four children were high need, one was in fact very high need. It was so very hard as my friends all had those babies who loved everyone.
    I couldn’t even go to the loo sometimes alone!
    While one has gone on to be a very outgoing adult the other still struggles with anxiety at times.
    I on the other hand am still exhausted when I remember just how hard it was.

    1. You’re right Tric, it is exhausting. It demands so much of a mother’s energy. That’s a very interesting insight into how your two high need babies developed into adults. We all react to everything so uniquely it’s amazing.

  5. I read this on my phone last night, wanting to reply “yes, that’s me too” but didn’t get to it until now – I too wish I’d known the term “high needs baby” back when my first child was born. I would hear about other people doing housework while their small babies chilled out in bouncer chairs and wonder what the hell I was doing wrong. I wish I’d known that this is a thing. My third was the same, but this time round I was better able to just let everything slide.

  6. I *thought* my eldest child was high need. Then no’s 2 & 3 came along. And I found out what high need really means. Blimey! I swear, they used to SMELL when I came into, or left the room. It was damn hard. And I didn’t get the naps either. Those were dark days. I really wish though I wasn’t as anal about the housework as I was and LET that older child wear the odd vest with just a smear of poo or puke on it.

  7. I have being laughing out loud at your articles. Brilliant. I am the lucky mum of what Dr. Sears has coined a ‘High Needs’ child. Yes all babies have ‘high needs’ in some areas but a few have ‘high needs’ in all respects. These needs are often conflicting – eg. I want to sleep, but I don’t want to be left in my cot, no I don’t want to be cuddled. My newborn informed me when he wanted his nappy changed, which side he wanted to breastfeed on, that he wanted to held up for a better view, always something was in need of attention… My best description of the experience/situation is relentless, intense, frustrating and isolating. I needed to learn how to accept and manage. I heard the fantasy stories of babies falling asleep on their play mats. Co-sleeping and baby wearing was utter fiction to me. Sleep – you must be joking. I looked enviously on at mother groups where mums actually carried on conversations. I even lost my best friend. I learnt to ignore the ‘helpful’ advice of the well-meaning and accept it as just that well-meaning. A short note for those that favour ‘cry it out’ – this will not work on a high-needs as within less than a second you will have a hysterical puking baby that will have no chance of settling. Also weeks of good trust building will be gone and take months to restore. The sleep specialist suggested using sedatives to train. I thought it might be more appropriate for me to take the sedatives. With these challenges came the most amazing intimate relationship embedded in trust. Digging down deep to find my inner hippy and weather the storm was so worth it. Yes for 2 years I lived in a tip, never slept and nearly always had barf in my hair and food on my clothes but my bub is so worth it. And yes it does relent – as the trust grows, the freedom of independent movement increases and the speech develops the separation anexity reduces. See now I even have time to post my views.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience Isabel. That’s a very serious intervention suggested by the paeds – wow! I’m so glad to hear that things improved. You’re a super strong mama, delighted sticking to you instinct reaped the rewards you deserve!

  8. Oh my first was so easy. But this one has just drained all my energy. It’s the sleep I miss so much. And I could have written those words about the cup of coffee myself. He’s just a horrible sleeper and napper unless he sleeps with me. I type this as he nurses, awake for the second time in an hour after laying him down for bed. He’s decided to co-sleep, an option I never even looked into but it’s the only way for both of us to get some rest. Occasional I love the snuggles but so many times I would die for a little “me” time!

  9. This is my little man exactly! I could have written it word for word. INTENSE! We are nearing his first birthday and I’m drained and exhausted . I think for me the hardest part is that my oh doesn’t understand just how intense it is. Any suggestions?

    1. Oh Ro! I wish I had suggestions! You poor love. It is exhausting. This phrase might be driving you cracked at the minute, but genuinely “this too shall pass”. We are long out the other side of it and I have to say the relief is overwhelming.

  10. Our firstborn, a boy, was diagnosed as high needs as an infant. Boy, what an adventure we were in for! He liked my husband, me and my mom. That’s it. No babysitters. He had to be with me all the time. Oh, and yes to Dora, yet no turtlenecks :). We had a rigid schedule that helped him feel safe. I felt like a failure for a long, long time. I came to realize, through many times of prayer, that changing a child’s personality is not possible, nor should it be a goal. But boy, did we bond. Now, he’s 16. He’s independent, passionate, loyal, crusader for justice, insightful…all the good qualities you want in a kid. I look forward to watching his future unfold. Hang in there, mamas! You’re planting seeds of greatness.

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