[full of it]

High-Needs Parenting

Posted in Uncategorized by susieyarbs on October 27, 2011

Felix loves to smile at people.  He has a big grin for anyone who will smile back, especially old ladies.  Virtually every time we go out, someone says, “What a happy boy!  Is he always so happy?”

Short answer: no.  Felix is a high-needs baby.  Probably like most parents of high-needs babies, and also because he’s my first, it took me a while to figure it out.  I knew he wasn’t “like” other babies, but I didn’t know that he fit into any particular category.  I watched other babies fall asleep without nursing, without a fuss; watched them sit in high chairs throughout a whole meal, perfectly content with a toy or two; heard about how they sleep through car rides; go two hours without nursing; watched them play on the floor while their mom made dinner – all things my baby is not capable of doing.

Eventually I stumbled upon the Sears Fussy Baby Book.  I read the first two chapters just crying – here it is, all of it.  This is my baby.  There are other babies like him, I didn’t break him, and it’s even a good thing.  It was especially well-timed, because we were having a really rough go.  I was resentful of his needs, missing my old life, missing freedom, feeling overwhelmed, touched-out, angry, completely, totally 100% tapped the fuck out.  “Mother burn out” – yes, been there.

12 Features of a High Needs Baby (I’ve bolded the ones that particularly apply)

1. Intense
Everything is extreme.  He’s extremely happy, extremely unhappy.  There is no want for personality in him.

2. Hyperactive
He doesn’t ever stop moving, if that’s what you mean.

3. Draining
I can’t overstate it – it’s so exhausting taking care of him.  Not physically, so much, but emotionally.  It’s constant giving, touching, loving, talking, playing.  Constant.  Constant.

4. Feeds frequently
All the time.  It really peaked around 7-8 months, and now he’s on a much more manageable every two hours-ish sort of routine.  For a long time though, he’d just check in – latch on for a minute or less, just to make sure it’s still there.  He’d do that all the time…I don’t know, say every half hour?  His actual feeds would happen as I nursed him to sleep for naps.  Oh, and all night long.

5. Demanding
  He knows how to get what he wants.  I fumed inside when well-meaning women at the LLL meeting, when I talked about his “drive-by” nursing habits suggested that I try to redirect him, distract him with a toy or something.  First – as if I haven’t tried that.  Second – yeah fucking right.  You obviously haven’t met my baby.  But, as I’ll mention later, this is a good thing.  It makes for a very tired and touched-out mom, but it’s good.  A baby who doesn’t give up on getting his needs met is a baby who thrives.

6. Awakens frequently
Honestly, I wake up in the mornings unable to tell how often he was up.  It’s a lot.  But I’m not tired, so who gives a shit.  The explanation of this tendency among high-needs babies is that they can’t tune things out.  Babies, in general, have short sleep cycles and spent a larger proportion of their time in light, vulnerable sleep.  High-needs babies are particularly prone to waking up during those times, and need help going back to sleep.  On a good night, Felix probably wakes up three times and goes straight back to sleep when I nurse him.  On a bad night, it’s every hour and a half with chunks of time spent half-awake and restless.  Even after bad nights I don’t tend to be too tired.

7. Unsatisfied
I don’t know that I would call him “unsatisfied,” just that his needs are constant.  I guess you could view that as him never being satisfied, but I tend to see it as just a very high baseline level of needs.

8. Unpredictable
Yeah, I guess, but not in a bad way.

9. Super sensitive
He isn’t sensitive to things like loud noises, but he does seem to be sensitive in an emotional sense.  Tuned-in, maybe?  He seems to pick up on my moods very easily.  If I wake up in a bad mood, he’s guaranteed to be clingy and fussy.  But if I manage to flip it around, so does he.

10. Can’t be put down
Indeed.  When he was tiny, I couldn’t put him down for a second.  Now, he does play alone sometimes, but only if I’m on the floor very close by.  He doesn’t play at my feet while I do dishes or cook – he demands to be held.  Which obviously makes those tasks more challenging.  If I (or anyone, really) walk away from him suddenly, without talking to him while I walk away, he cries scared, hurt tears.  If I look at him and talk to him as Iwalk away, he won’t cry, but he will follow.  This is what makes the simplest tasks nearly impossible.  I can’t scramble eggs in the morning without him clawing at my legs, crying to be picked up.

11. Not a self-soother

12. Separation sensitive
This is mostly manifested in the car, since he’s pretty well attached at all other times, and doesn’t ever get the chance to have separation anxiety.  The car is rough.  He can’t see me, he’s stuck, and once he realizes that there’s no distracting him from it.  Not even the coolest, most forbidden toy will calm him.  It’s enough to limit my outings to only the most necessary errands, because I think it’s unfair and mean to allow him to be so stressed.
There you go, high-needs in a nutshell.  The book I read does an amazing job of laying it out in a positive way.  His needs aren’t any different than the needs of all babies – he’s just particularly insistent on having them met.  All babies need lots of touch, lots of attention, but most are alright with less.  He’s not.

For me, it helps to think of it in evolutionary terms (does that surprise anyone?) and from Felix’s point of view.  He doesn’t know that we live in a safe house with a locked door.  He doesn’t know that I’m still nearby if he can’t see or touch me.  I am safety to him.  If I’m close, he’s safe.  If I’m not, he’s not.  If we were a cave family, would I put him down to sleep by himself and then go to the next door cave to sleep?  I know the difference, but he doesn’t.  He’s hard-wired to survive, and that means always having a parent near.

He’s high-needs, not high-wants.  He needs to feel safe, he needs to feel secure.  He needs to be held all the time, he needs to nurse all the time, he needs to wake up a lot to make sure he’s not alone.  I need to do a lot more than most moms to make sure I have a happy baby.

It’s hard.  I have needs too, you know (wait…I didn’t mean those needs).  House work and laundry get bumped to the bottom of my priority list (or, in reality, over to John’s priority list), because the two hours of alone time I get while he’s napping need to be spend relaxing so I don’t lose my shit.  It took me a while to realize that it was okay to ask for more help, to erase things from my responsibilities list.  I need a few minutes to re-focus, fill a need or two of my own, and not spent nap time running around like crazy trying to catch up on cleaning.

It definitely isn’t always sunshine and lollipops, but if I keep centered and make sure I’m not getting lost in the shuffle, we’re good.  It’s when I try to pile too much on, start thinking I should be doing more, and think I shouldn’t need to ask for help that the whole “mother burnout” sets in.  I sometimes resent that I’ve had to give up so much.  No reading, knitting, sewing.  I end up spending lots of time on my phone, reading articles and blogs – short things I don’t get too invested in.  He’s lost interest in my phone as a toy, which is nice.  I can’t read real books because he will demand it from me and then rip the pages.  I can’t be on the laptop because he demands to bang on the keys.

I have accepted all of this.  I’m okay with it.  I have to be, right?  I wouldn’t change a thing, honestly.  I’m over the pangs of jealousy, I’m over wanting to trade kids with someone else for a day (or night).  One thing that does continue to get under my skin, as I’m sure it does every parent, is the unsolicited parenting advice.  For one – it’s really never a good idea under any circumstances.  Two – if you’ve never had a high-needs kid, you truly and honestly do not get it.  Your tricks won’t work.  Any attempt at “fixing” him would, in practice, be ignoring his needs, and I refuse to do that.  It’s mean, and it backfires.  If I decide I’m going to have a “productive” day (as if parenting isn’t productive), and spend huge amounts of energy at distracting and redirecting him so I can clean out my closet, I’m guaranteed an even more fussy and clingy baby for days after.  So, suggesting we make him cry it out at night is absurd (my feelings on that particular practice are really deserving of another post) and might earn you a punch in the face.

What high-needs babies need is serious, hardcore, committed attachment parenting.  I actually sort of object to the “high-needs” label…it’s accurate, but every time I’ve said it it’s been interpreted as “special-needs.”  I prefer “attached.”  In some circles that has its own negative connotation, but I don’t hang in those circles.  “Independent baby” is an oxymoron, everyone.  They’re not small adults.  Anyway.

Already I think I’m starting to see some payoff.  We might have turned a corner with the car thing – I haven’t pushed it because I don’t want to test his patience, but for the last week or so he’s hardly cried at all and he’s even fallen asleep several times.  When we’re in public, he has no problem taking off running and making friends with strangers.  He’s not afraid of new people – quite the opposite.  In the mall, he will walk down the aisle, peeking his head in stores, making friends, and not look back for me.  Because I’m there.  I’m always there.  He doesn’t have to wonder because he knows.  That is what attachment parenting is all about.

*It seems appropriate that it’s taken me two weeks to write this.


2 Responses

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  1. Anne said, on October 27, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    This is beautiful and I just want you to know what an amazing mom you are, the PERFECT hand picked mom for Felix. I love you!

  2. melissa said, on October 27, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    I really love that you wrote this and put words to paper (so to speak) your thoughtful ideas on this challenging aspect of being a parent. I’m equally out on the term “high needs” because, really, for your child these are normal needs. And when he expresses that he has a need, his need is met…and not only that, it’s met with love and acceptance.
    To a large degree, I have the same experience as you do, but I think Brock is just not quite as spirited as Felix and has a longer fuse to meltdown, so I’m hesitant to use the high needs label. But I also recognize that his expressions of displeasure are his way of communicating a need. I remember when he was just a few weeks old, before he had any semblance of a sleeping schedule and we were up in the middle of the night, I was so tired and frustrated and then it clicked – it’s just us, I am this child’s mother and I will always make every effort to respond to him as lovingly as possible. I realized then that it’s just going to be really hard and I have to accept that if I’m ever going to be deserving of his love, trust and respect.
    There is some show that my sister-in-law quotes when she’s around Brock – there are three levels of people to him – mom, notmom and PEASANT. Everyone else gets to relax and look away, but as mom, we are ALWAYS on and it’s exhausting. Others offer help, but really, there is no escape and sometimes it makes me want to pull my hair out. My husband is my only saving grace, he keeps me from falling over the edge.
    I hear about other parents of infants going away for a weekend alone, sleeping next to their spouses alone in their bed while their little one sleeps through the night (you know, the marker of a “good baby”), hell – even having a glass of wine with dinner and part of me thinks damn, that must be nice. And then I think about what my baby needs. He needs his mama, all day, every day. He doesn’t turn off when I sigh and wish that he could just for the love of god go to sleep already so Mama can catch up on the high drama that is the televised wedding of Kardashian proportion.
    So what I’m saying here is girl, I got your back. I feel ya. Thanks for writing this. I know you don’t need me or anyone to tell you that you are a rockin mom because when you are connected to your baby, you can FEEL it in your bones that you are doing the right thing, but I’ll say it anyway – you ARE awesome and I’m glad we became friends. Just think – before you know it, they’ll be big enough to be playing in a sandbox together while we sip our wine coolers (that’s right, wine coolers!). Big hugs 🙂

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