What Is A “High Needs Baby”?

IMG_7619Tom and I have thrown around the term “high needs” a lot when talking about Hennie and I just wanted to write a little bit about what that means because it’s a relatively recent term and some friends and family have expressed curiosity about it. High needs is a term coined by the venerable paediatrician Dr. William Sears to describe babies who “need more”. You can read about the 12 features that define these babies’ [here], if you’d like to, but I’ll quickly sum up the main points for you. Through years of paediatric practice and counselling of parents and babies both “normal” and “high needs,” Dr. Sears recognized and recorded the 12 features of the high needs baby and came up with the term to reflect a more positive attitude than the “difficult” or “fussy” labels these babies had previously been given. As Dr. Sears says, “each of these personality traits has its blessings and its trials. These personality traits should not be judged as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ They are just differences between babies, but these differences do make high need babies challenging to parent. Ultimately, what matters is how the child learns to use these special gifts. Our goal is to help parents identify these unique features in their infant and child and channel these traits to work to the child’s advantage.”

I first learned about the term after joining a support group for fussy babies online. In those early days with Hennie we began to suspect that our parent friends were having a completely different experience than we were having, and one night, in an effort to feel less isolated, I sought out other parents on social media whose newborns acted like ours did. Being a parent is hard and we expected it to be a challenge, but our friends could put their babies down sometimes, could anticipate their babies’ needs with some predictability, could enjoy their babies’ without being screamed at constantly. Once Hennie’s reflux problems had been resolved and colic had finally passed (around four months) we found her slightly easier to manage, but it was clear that she was still a loud, clingy, sensitive, draining baby. This is not to discredit any other parent who is having a tough time because all kids are a little high needs and may reflect a few of the 12 characteristics Dr. Sears identified above, but we could see that Hennie possessed most if not all of the features listed, and children who reflect that many traits are, as we quickly learned, especially challenging.

Hennie needs to be held constantly but isn’t quick to cuddle. She is an intense baby with an angry, loud cry. She is extremely sensitive to her environment and does not easily accept a caregiver who is not mum or dad. She is often hypertonic – if she is awake, her little muscles are usually clenched. We weren’t able to put her down for months and we have found that she is at her happiest when she is being held by one of her parents while looking at the other. She cannot self soothe and relies on a multi-faceted strategy to get to sleep, then often won’t transition out of our arms once asleep anyway. At family events she isn’t the baby that is easily passed around for everyone to hold and cuddle; we feel like we’re “hogging” her, but she needs time to warm to new people and situations and easily becomes overstimulated by so many faces.

When we found and read Dr. Sears’ baby book about parenting the high need child we couldn’t believe it – as he described the personality of his baby daughter Hayden in the opening chapter, we could have substituted Hennie’s name and been reading about her. They were exactly alike. I instantly felt relief knowing that other babies like Hen existed and it wasn’t just that I couldn’t hack it as a mama. My penchant for self-doubt had caused me to wonder at times if my expectations for motherhood had been extraordinarily warped, if I was just straight-up bad at parenting, or if I just had a dramatic or negative outlook (I’m sure a handful of our friends have wondered the same). But here was a book not only describing our child perfectly, but also describing our experiences as parents and our feelings of doubt, resentment, and inadequacy.  Dr. Sears described entire nights spent walking with his newborn daughter while she slept, the danger of making comparisons, the tendency the high needs baby has to dominate the home, and the defeated feeling of always having to walk on eggshells and meet her constant demands. I was reminded that we needed to change our expectations rather than trying to change her (an impossible task anyway) and find ways to stay positive on days when we felt exhausted and resentful. Most of all, I felt vindicated knowing that approximately 10% of babies just need more as Dr. Sears puts it; “more touch, more understanding, more sensitivity, more creative parenting.”

While these high-needs aspects of Hennie’s little personality are certainly challenging and draining to us now, we are so excited to see how they become real advantages for her later. And please know that the purpose of writing this isn’t to elicit pity, but understanding. On a good day, I know that we are an ideal match for this little girl – we are flexible, energetic, and open-minded parents, and Tom, at least, has seemingly endless patience. But I am an anxious mama too, and I often feel guilty when friends and family don’t understand why Hennie doesn’t want to be held by them, why she won’t sit still or cuddle them, or why they’ve offered to babysit multiple times and we haven’t taken them up on the offer. When we bring her somewhere new people often comment that she is “playing strange,” but just as adults come with varying degrees of social comfort zones, so too do babies. As my friend Katherine noticed very quickly when Hennie was only a month old, our daughter “really likes her personal space.” That said, we have seen some great (but slow) progress lately and are hopeful that any future Procter babies are a bit more low maintenance 🙂 I hope that learning a bit more about high needs babies helps you – our family and friends – understand a bit more about Hennie and a lot more about how Tom and I are managing during this crazy first year of parenthood! And if you made it this far, thanks for reading!

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