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Loving the High-Need Baby

Roxanne Willems Snopek
Abbotsford, BC, Canada
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 13 No. 5, September-October 1996, pp. 136-7

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time.

When my first daughter Stephanie was a baby, I read Sheila Kitzinger's book The Crying Baby. Her description of inconsolably crying infants and frustrated, desperate parents did not match my experience. We had periodic fussy episodes, but surely Ms Kitzinger exaggerated!

Then my daughter, Andrea, was born, and I began my practical education in mothering a high-need baby. Before we had even left the hospital I knew this baby was wired differently from other babies. Worried, tense, with very strong reactions to any stimulation, she needed constant contact and motion. Over the next few months I discovered that these and many others are typical traits of the fussy or "high-need" baby.

Andrea was born during a heat wave. Uncomfortable for the rest of the family, it was intolerable for her. Dressed only in a diaper, she would be red, sticky, and miserable. Nursing, her one comfort, only made her hotter and more frustrated.

We quickly learned to minimize sudden, loud noises around our baby. A cough or sneeze in the same room often triggered a violent startle reaction and frightened screaming. Gas and bowel distension also caused her much pain. She would alternately draw her legs up to her tensed abdomen and then thrust them out while arching her back and crying with all her might.

Interestingly, she rarely cried at night. Our day usually started around 6:00 AM with an hour or two of peace. When she began fussing, I employed my trusty baby sling which helped somewhat. She squirmed and complained while I held her, but she didn't scream. Any attempt to put her down caused renewed screaming.

Andrea rarely napped for more than twenty minutes and then only once or twice a day. Her mood deteriorated as the day wore on until around 11:00 PM when she had worn both of us out, and I could nurse her to sleep.

We purchased a double bed for Andrea's room shortly after she arrived, because it was clear that the only way for any of us to get any sleep was for me to sleep with her. I believe this decision saved my sanity and, as my husband Ray said, "Better a sane wife in the next room than a babbling idiot in bed with you." Andrea still nursed frequently during the night (sometimes five or more times), but she didn't actually wake up and hardly ever cried. As we became attuned to each other's sleep cycles, I came to cherish those nights with her as a time of bonding we rarely enjoyed during the day. She was calm and quiet, and I was able to satisfy her needs, something I was never sure about when she was awake.

In spite of her difficulties, Andrea thrived. Plump and velvet-skinned, her dimples attracted attention wherever we went. She was advanced developmentally, and her doctor could never find any medical reason for her unhappiness.

A light bulb switched on for me when I read THE FUSSY BABY by Dr. Sears (available through the LLLI Online Store). He describes babies as having different levels of needs and comfort thresholds. This made sense to me. Andrea was not bad, manipulative, or vindictive. She was just a baby with more needs than others, and she required a higher level of parenting. According to Dr. Sears, "Those same qualities which at first seemed to be such an exhausting liability have a good chance of turning out to be an asset for the child and the family." How I clung to this hope! I knew I would have to be more patient, more persistent, and less selfish in bringing out the best in Andrea, and I believed that one day it would pay off.

Now, over four years later, it definitely has. Andrea is a very strong child with a lot of energy. I suspect the frustration of being a baby contributed to her misery. When she learned to walk at twelve months her crying decreased dramatically.

As she grew into toddlerhood we saw more evidence of her intense and sensitive personality, and we began to see the positive results of our empathetic parenting. Very slowly she began reaching out to people other than me. As she began to talk, she related stories of night terrors, and I was so thankful we had never left her to cry alone at night.

People criticized us for allowing her to be so "clingy" and predicted an extremely dependent child. What they did not realize was that she was going to be clingy as a baby whether we allowed it or not, but by meeting those dependency needs in infancy, we could allow her to grow beyond them. While it seemed like forever at the time, before we knew it, it was over. Andrea weaned herself soon after her third birthday and slept alone most of the time by then. She is now a very outgoing, confident child. Her personality remains intense, but now there are highs as well as lows. She is very sensitive emotionally, but to other people's feelings as well as her own.

Andrea taught me more about mothering than any parenting book could have. Someone once wrote, "Great adversity calls forth great virtue." I believe this applies to us. Andrea and I have a special bond born of "great adversity," and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from the experience of loving a high-need baby.

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