Surviving a High Need Baby

Surviving a High Need Baby


There’s a lot of advice out there on how to fix a high-need baby; everything from a chiropractor to aggressive swaddling to aromatherapy to the always (not) helpful maybe he’s just picking up on your negative vibes.


But having a baby that defies all cures and advice and tricks — a baby that just cries, that needs more for no reason in particular — all of the fixes and advice just make the situation worse. In my darkest, most exhausted hours I wondered if it was my fault. After all, what kind of mother couldn’t even help her baby stop crying, or worse, what kind of committed attachment parenting, naturally-minded mother has a miserable baby? What kind of mother is miserable?


I made mistakes with my first child that I was determined not to make again, and so my second son was nurtured from the start with a peaceful, high-nutrition, low stress pregnancy. He was gentled into the world with a midwife attended natural birth, was placed on my belly to nurse immediately after. Never left my arms until we made the drive home.


He was nursed on demand. Carried in a sling. Co-slept. Delayed vaccinations.


He also cried all the time, day and night, slept terribly, hated everything except for nursing which he did pretty much constantly, round the clock.


We tried everything. Yes, that. Yep, that too.


To this day I honestly have no idea what his deal was. At eight, he’s happy and healthy and a pretty typical little boy, if slightly more energetic than average. And if I could go back in time and give myself a pep talk on one of those days that I was not only teetering on the edge, but wondering if falling over the cliff might not be so bad in comparison, I think I’d say:


You are not a bad mother. Your baby is not broken. You will survive this.


Some ways to survive, not fix:


For god’s sake, take a nap.

If the baby will sleep next to you for twenty minutes at a time between nursing sessions, sleep with her. If she screams if you try to put her down for a nap, hand her to someone else who loves her, put in earplugs and sleep anyway. Go to bed at seven thirty, take a quick snooze during a conference call, spend the entirely of yoga class in the corpse pose. You get the picture. Chronic lack of sleep is an excellent way to wind up curled in a corner alternately weeping and laughing hysterically. Don’t let that happen, at least not until the teenage years.


Get help.

I don’t mean therapy (although, maybe that too) but let go of being everything at all times to your baby. Yes, you’re the one with the boobs, you’re the one with the strongest bond right now, you’re the one who’s figured out the exact combination of the bouncing/walking/shushing/patting/swaying/humming/spinning one-person Cirque Du Soleil act that sometimes soothes him. But other people who love him can figure it out too. And then you can wash your hair for the first time in weeks. Or eat with both hands. Or pee without someone in your lap. Or- Actually, you know what? Just go take a nap.


Try not to take well-meaning advice personally.

I’ll never forget being at the rehearsal dinner for a wedding when my son was about seven months old. We were out of town, he was tired and fussy and out of sorts. I took him to a hallway in an attempt stop the crying train, since once we boarded the crying train there was no getting off. A bridesmaid or friend or family member I didn’t know saw us. “Try putting him in a stroller!” She chirped, “That always worked for my babies.” I wanted to sneer at her. Don’t you think I’ve tried that? Don’t you think I’ve tried everything? You have no idea what I’ve been through. And the thing is, she didn’t. A lot of people don’t. You’re doing the best you can. It’s enough.


Or just have some fun with it.

Hey you have to laugh so you don’t cry sometimes, right? So when someone asks if she’s sleeping though the night yet, just say, “No, but then again we have been doing all those bar crawls together lately…” Or when someone wonders if he’s a good baby you can inform them that, “He’s isn’t, really, but that he’s out on parole so, you know, fingers crossed”. Even if you just think it and snicker to yourself, it feels pretty good.


Take it day by day, moment by moment.

She won’t nurse constantly forever, he will be able to sleep somewhere other than your chest. For right now forget about some day, just deal with today. Make it through as best you can, be gentle with yourself, it will get better.


Think of the future.

Or sometimes it can be helpful to focus on the day it will actually get better. Things got easier for me when my son learned to crawl, easier still when he learned to talk. When he started walking and eating solid food and taking the world by manic toddler storm, I finally felt like I could breathe again. We made it. Soon you’ll be celebrating her first birthday, her first steps. He’ll sleep the entire night. She’ll start wanting to play all by herself. Then you’ll hardly get a hug in until he’s sleeping and no longer too busy for his Mama. One day you’ll actually miss it. Well, sort of.


Despite how difficult it was, though, I don’t regret the way I parented him. He needed more, which meant that being securely attached was essential. When he was three I finally felt ready (or enough time had passed for situation amnesia to set in) to try for a third baby. I didn’t change anything, I still felt in my heart that attachment parenting was right. Only this time, I didn’t expect it to be some magical cure. She ended up being remarkably laid-back and easy, right from birth.


Maybe there is some magic left in the world yet.



About Jill Vettel

Jill Vettel is a writer and stay at home mom of three is Durham, NC. These days she sleeps all night long, minus the frequent potty breaks. Unless there’s a thunderstorm then all bets are off.

9 thoughts on “Surviving a High Need Baby”

  1. I never met someone else who really understood what I went through with my first. This was perfect, thank you. My second has been easier, but I almost feel like I have PTSD. Everytime she would cry for awhile I would fear that she would keep crying. My oldest is two and a half now and has been so much easier as a toddler. Thank you for this article.

  2. I remember bursting into tears as I arrived at my parents’ house, (toting my first infant who had not stopped crying in his car seat all morning and afternoon) exclaiming, “I thought it would get easier AFTER the morning sickness, labor & delivery!” I’d never heard of high needs babies till in a state of exhausted delirium I realized I had one of my own. The meat of this uplifting article was just the nourishment I needed four years ago, and even now that we’ve made it through the toughest stages, reading a mother’s experience that mirrors my own brings relief…especially with #2 due in 3 weeks. Thank you. Surely we’ll get a dose of baby bliss this time around?!

  3. After all the things people told me to expect as a teen mom (ie “You have no idea how hard it will be, how much they cry, dont sleep, etc…”) I really thought she was normal and that I just wasn’t coping well. I now know that a baby who nurses 45 min and sleeps for 45 min round the clock for the first 3 months is incredibly colicky! Wish moms were given more support and less advice in our culture.

  4. Yup, this was our high needs daughter. I would describe those early months as…brutal, exhausting, harrowing. Things very gradually improved, and kept improving, as she hit each of her developmental milestones. Getting decent sleep was very difficult, for a very long time. At two-years-old, she sleeps! And is much easier (though definitely not easy).

  5. My daughter did not sleep through the night until two and a half. When people would ask me if she was sleeping through the night yet, my response was no, but neither am I, so it works out. Then change the subject before they had a chance to grasp what I said.
    If you have a high need baby, I am going to say something that you don’t hear enough. It is not you. You did not break your baby and you are not a bad mother. You have a baby who is different, not difficult. He or she came that way and all you can do is respect that. But you are still a good mother.

  6. My first few months were so stressful with the constant crying/nursing and I wondered why no one told me it would be that difficult! I thought “surely this can’t be normal, otherwise no one would have any more kids!” I vowed never to have another. Well, my LO is a year old now and she is still high needs, but I realize that it’s not my fault, she just needs mommy a lot and I am there for her. People have their comments and their “advice”, but this is MY baby. Nothing is more important to me than the bond that we share and will share for the rest of our lives, so when she throws a fit, I am a firm but comforting presence for her. She must always know that mommy will be there. I know that one day it will pay off and I might even MISS this time with her, so I strive to take it as another growing experience. My mantra: “this too, shall pass!”

  7. Oh btw I’m looking forward to having another baby one day and enjoying the journey a lot more, now that I know what I can expect!

  8. This article encouraged me today, thank you. My little girl is precious but definitely fits every description of a”high needs baby.” She is my first and before her birth I totally had visions of her happily riding in her car seat, meeting friends for lunch dates with her dressed up in a cute outfit (falling asleep in her carrier while we ate)…well you get the picture…but my experience has been NOTHING like that and almost 4 months in I’m starting to come to terms with how she is and how it’s not what I had imagined. She’s healthy, STRONG, beautiful, SMART…but it takes all of me and then some every day. Other people’s comments are some of the hardest things to deal with. Thank you for the encouragement! One day I want to write about my experience but right now every free moment is spent resting if possible!

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