The Profile of a High-Need Baby

You might be noticing your baby is different than the ones you read about in your baby instruction manuals, or the babies your friends have.

Maybe you’re realizing contemporary parenting methods bounce off your baby like a trick basketball hoop at the county fair.

Perhaps you feel like you’re doing everything wrong, and you’re on (or past) the brink of despair.

If you can relate, there’s a good chance you have a high-need baby.

Yeah, no kidding. Tell me something I don’t know, you might be thinking. But while you might easily recognize the fact that your baby has a lot of loudly expressed needs, you might not be aware of the connotations, or how to cope with your situation.

In this post, I’ll share with you:

  • Why it matters whether you have a high-need baby;
  • Why having a high-need baby is actually a blessing in disguise;
  • What a high-need baby looks/sounds/acts like;
  • How parents are impacted by having a high-need baby;
  • Strategies to cope with your high-need baby;
  • Popular tactics & advice that likely won’t help your high-need baby;
  • How to re-frame your attitude toward your high-need baby (+ free printables!).

Just so you know, I incorporate affiliate links, from which I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you, to help showcase products I personally own and love, as well as to illustrate certain points or product features.

The Importance of Understanding Why Your Infant is So Challenging

When my daughter was a newborn, I had no clue she was a “high-need baby.” I didn’t even realize there was such a classification. I knew I couldn’t put her down, I knew she fussed a lot, but I didn’t know my situation was unique. I thought all babies started out that way.

I was committed to attachment parenting from the beginning, so as I started to recognize the discrepancies between my experience and the accounts I heard from other parents, I just thought the difference was in our parenting styles. I had made the decision not to train my baby to be convenient, and so she wasn’t.

Yet, the more burned out I became, I began to second guess my parenting beliefs and choices. It was over six months before I realized that my baby actually was different, and that there was a name for it.

“Carrots” was (is) a high-need baby.

Babies like these go by a lot of names in books and blog posts, most commonly “fussy” and “colicky,” although the latter is not necessarily accurate.

High-need babies can acquire these high needs through one or both of two primary sources: a medical cause, or a natural temperament. This post is written from the perspective of a parent with at temperamentally high-need baby, but most of what you will read here is likely true for both.

Your Baby is Unlike Most Others

You need to know that the reason your experience with parenting is different is because your baby is different. A couple of studies have estimated that only around 1 in 10 babies is fundamentally “high-need.”

I want you to know that your situation is not because you are a bad parent. It’s because you have a unique child.

When people give you advice and it doesn’t work, it’s not because you’re doing it wrong. People without high-need babies don’t understand what you’re going through, and they don’t know how to help, even though they think they do.

The reason you need to recognize and understand this is because you need to be able to trust yourself and trust your baby. If you believe your baby is manipulating you, or that you are failing at parenting, you will constantly fight an uphill battle, and your baby’s high needs will only be exacerbated.

The Serious Ramifications of a Fussy Baby

Beyond the very critical relationship with your baby, having a perpetually fussy baby can have serious impacts on mom’s physical and mental health.

Burnout is undeniably real for all moms, but particularly so for the mother of a high-need child. In fact, studies show correlations between high-need babies and a higher likelihood of postpartum depression, increased stress, low self-esteem, and early weaning/unsuccessful breastfeeding.

The greater demands of a high-need baby also put greater strain on the parents’ own relationship with each other.

Once you recognize that your baby is unique, you can start to address their needs in earnest and seek to learn more about their personality, rather than distrusting your baby and feeling like you just can’t get it right.

Before we go any further, though, we need to examine the anatomy of a high-need baby.

The Profile of a High-Need Baby

All babies will have moments, or even seasons, of fussiness and high-needs, but when I talk about the high-need baby, I mean a baby who has that quality built into their permanent temperament.

“High-need” is also not meant as a negative label. It simply helps us to differentiate a baby of certain characteristics from their milder, more laid back counterparts. Holly Klaassen of The Fussy Baby Site sometimes refers to high-need babies as “dragons” and the more easy-going babies as “unicorns.”

Have you ever seen a parent pushing an empty stroller with one arm and holding the baby in the other? While that wasn’t necessarily a high-need baby, the mental image should give you a glimpse into what life with a high-need baby is like.

Some babies are “high-need” only in certain areas of life, while others seem to be high-need in every conceivable way. If you have a high-need baby, you might find some, or even all, of the following to be true.

Can’t be put down

This is likely the characteristic most common among high-need babies. Any attempts to set Baby on his own, even just for a minute are met with loud protests and discontent. Even if Baby was sleeping, he may instantly awaken at being put down and refuse to resettle until snugly wrapped in his favorite set of arms once more.

Go to sleep with difficulty, and wake too easily

These are infants who the older ladies at church are NOT talking about when they ask if you have a “good baby.” High-need babies may need multiple sleep props to drift off, refuse to sleep alone in a crib, startle at the drop of a pin or rustle of paper, take short naps, only want to sleep being held, only sleep while latched at-breast, and wake frequently throughout the night. These babies fuel the sleep-training industry.

Constant need for touch, but not cuddly

Hand in hand (ha, get it?) with not wanting to be put down, high-need babies have the constant need for physical contact, particularly with mom and dad. However, much to the chagrin of an eager grandparent, these babies may not be especially cuddly. In fact, they may physically shun attempts at affection. While they protest being put down, they may not seem much happier being held, constantly squirming and changing position.

Won’t self soothe

No matter how long they are left to cry, or how gently parents attempt to “train” these babies to self-soothe, they will not settle until their needs have been recognized and met. Nighttime waking (when sleeping alone) results in escalating cries for rescue, and parents bemoan the fact that their baby won’t just grunt around and resettle like the other babies they know.

Fussy, even outside of “witching hour

Most babies are fussy or ‘colicky’ during a short phase of the day, but high-need babies may have an extended witching hour (a witching five-hours, like rush hour in the city) and fuss during other times of the day, too. Many mothers may experience anxiety upon rising in the morning not knowing whether the day will be pleasant or a constant, minute-by-minute struggle.

Feeds all the time

All of those books and blog posts that said babies only need to eat every 2-3 hours? Burn ’em. The high-need baby wants to eat ALL. THE. TIME. Rather than feeding for ‘fifteen minutes on each side’ and then chilling for a couple hours, the high-need baby is more likely to feed for 2-3 hours and then take a fifteen minute snooze before resuming. When ‘normal’ babies do this, it’s called cluster feeding. For high-need babies, it’s just feeding.

Separation-sensitive

The high-need baby may be particularly attached to her own parents, especially the primary caregiver (usually mom). Relatives, friends, and even Dad should not get their feelings hurt when Baby is only happy and content in mom’s familiar arms, has to keep her in sight when held by other people (best case), and screams to be returned (worst case).

(My daughter is like like this, and my husband’s grandmother calls her a “boobie girl.”)

Constantly active

High-need babies are active all the time, especially once they’re mobile. They are frequently even labeled hyperactive. Where other babies might be content to sit in one area and play with a toy or two, high-need babies have a strong drive to explore and stay moving. They are busy!

My baby, “Carrots,” won’t even sit still to nurse. She does gymnastics while still latched, and moves so much that I can’t even hold a book or my phone.

Strong personality

The high-need baby almost definitely has a strong personality with engaging facial expressions and no reservations about expressing himself. This baby knows what he wants, and his life’s purpose is to make sure you know, too.

I’ve always found it so interesting to see how some babies really stand out from others, and what I’m coming to realize is that those babies whose personalities stand out are very frequently high-need babies. They are more engaged, more curious, more exploratory, more expressive, and oftentimes, more fun. But that, of course, is my own (slightly biased) opinion.

Difficult to please/needs things just so

Typical babies have needs. High-need babies have specific needs. A typical baby wants to be fed. A high-need baby wants to be fed while being held while bouncing while you stand on your head in a certain corner of a certain room. Sometimes when you can’t figure out the winning combination, it can feel like you’re not doing anything right and it’s impossible to make your baby happy. It can be tempting to think even they don’t know what they want, but I promise you, they do. You just haven’t figured it out, and quite possibly never will.

Easily angered/exhibit strong shows of emotion/prone to tantrums

These babies have TEMPERS. They put the temper in temperamental. One minute, you’ll have the sweetest, happiest baby in the world and think yourself the luckiest mother ever to live. The next, it’s a full on tantrum because you wouldn’t allow her to put her tongue in an electrical socket and all you can do is pray no one in your neighborhood calls the police.

These babies are like stage actors: the normal range of emotions might not adequately communicate to you the way they’re feeling, so everything is aggrandized and dramatic.

Like most everything else they do, high-need babies feel intensely.

Observant/clever/alert/sensitive

Along with having strong personalities, high-need babies are also exceptionally alert and observant. You might notice that some babies are very passive and laid back, or for lack of a better descriptor, a little dopey. High-need babies will get comments everywhere they go about how alert they are, even when they’re actually under the weather, sleepy, or out of it. They are very sensitive to changes in their environment and people’s moods. And beware, because they are insanely clever. A trick might fool them once or twice, but they’ll figure out what you’re doing sooner than later and you’ll have to change your tactics again.

Help! My Baby Hates Me

All (even just some) of these qualities wrapped up into one tiny and nonverbal bundle can only be described as intense! Fighting all day and night to satisfy this demanding little person would wear even a titanium robot down to the wire. It’s little wonder moms of high-need babies may be more more prone to depression, stress, and burnout.

If you’re the proud (and utterly exhausted) parent of just such a baby, you might very well feel like your baby hates you. I know I’ve said it on more than one (million) occasions. High-need babies have a profoundly deep and far reaching effect on their parents.

You’re likely experiencing:

  • Excessive frustration
  • Burnout
  • Overwhelm
  • Exhaustion
  • Sleep deprivation
  • A (perceived) lack of productivity
  • Moodiness, irritability
  • Isolation
  • Resentfulness
  • Survival mode
  • A feeling of inadequacy

However, by trusting both yourself and your baby, and attempting to meet your baby’s needs, endless though they may be, you can also experience:

  • A unique sense of connectedness with your baby;
  • Pride in yourself for the challenges you’ve overcome;
  • Pride in your baby, as you see their personalities mature and flourish;
  • A stronger relationship with your husband;
  • Secure attachment and a special bond with Baby;
  • A strong sense of accomplishment and personal strength.

I Can’t Put My Baby Down!

One of the most prevalent characteristics of a high-need baby is their acute need for sustained physical contact. In other words, you’ll find yourself saying “I can’t put my baby down!” a lot.

These types of prolonged needs may leave you feeling manipulated, but it’s very important that you trust your baby’s needs as genuine and pressing.

Think of high-need babies as the go-getters of the baby world. Other babies might have the same desires, but don’t work as hard to communicate them, or will settle for alternative solutions. Not your high-need baby! They know exactly what they want and they will “communicate” those needs to you with painstaking persistence. (That will be such a great quality when they are older! Do you really want to squelch it?)

Knowing that your baby is demanding, though, does not make their care any less exhausting, so here are the nine most effective ways I’ve found to cope with a high-need baby.

1. Baby wear

I remember my first week home with Carrots had me an emotional wreck. I could not set her down even for a moment. One day it took me an hour to make a sandwich. Set her down, lay out bread, pick her up…set her down, spread mayonnaise, pick her up…

My apartment was falling apart around me, I was disgusting after giving birth but couldn’t shower, and I could barely get myself food and water.

Praise the Lord for ring slings and baby wraps. A wrap like this one is perfect for cooking, cleaning, errands, and light outings, and a ring sling like this is perfect for breastfeeding on your feet (which my baby insisted on for a while).

2. Breastfeed On-Demand

On top of needing to be held all the time, she literally did nurse around the clock. No joke, she had the feeding schedule backwards. Instead of feeding fifteen minutes each side and then waiting two hours, she would nurse those two hours and have a fifteen minute break.

I thought my nipples were going to fall off and leave town.

Here are the products I used to survive breastfeeding on-demand

While I recognize that breastfeeding itself, let alone breastfeeding on-demand, is not possible for everyone, if you do have the ability, it will go a long way toward helping your high-need baby.

Forget the typical “feeding schedule.” Your baby hasn’t read it and doesn’t care. Try to think of their needs to suck for comfort, for closeness, for security, for sleepiness, all as equally legitimate as sucking for food.

3. Co-sleep

I honestly never thought I’d be a co-sleeping parent. In fact, I thought that up until the day my baby was born. But that first night in the hospital, having her in a plastic bin on the other side of the room separated from me just didn’t feel right.

Co-sleeping allowed all three of us–mom, dad, and baby–to get the best quality sleep. No jumping out of bed to rescue an angry, screaming baby. No fighting to stay awake, sitting in a chair, long enough for baby to finish eating (which, my baby would stay latched and actively sucking for hours at a time). No pretending to be asleep so the other person will take a turn putting the baby back to sleep. No pacing the floors at 2 am because Baby is wide awake from crying.

Co-sleeping made it possible to feed the baby without either of us having to wake up fully and satisfied her need for security and physical contact.

4. Get Dad involved

Help your partner to understand the unique challenges of a high-need baby and how the demands on your time and energy make you feel. Work together to formulate a strategy to make sure you get breaks from baby care.

Here are 7 ways to keep your sanity while staying home with a baby

Not only will you get a breather to clock out and recharge, Dad will get some special, personal bonding time with Baby and even get a small taste of the struggles you face all day and night.

5. Lower your expectations for yourself

While you can get a lot more done with baby wearing, you still won’t be able to do everything…not even close! Rip your to-do list in half, lower your expectations for yourself, and focus on your baby as your top priority.

The days are long, some of them impossibly so, but the years are short.

Recognize that some days, getting the dishwasher loaded actually is accomplishing a lot. Also, don’t forget that taking care of your baby IS productive.

6. Get out of the house regularly

I’m intensely introverted, and became even more so after coming home from the hospital with a new baby. I never wanted to leave the apartment, and the thought of doing so with a small (high-need!) baby was daunting. But, what I realized was that both of us were going stir-crazy cooped up in the apartment day in and day out.

My baby actually loved going out, and doing so helped minimize her fussiness most of the time rather than exacerbating it.

And Mama, you need human interaction, even if it’s just the check-out lady at the grocery store.

7. Consider Baby’s perspective

Your baby was super comfy in your womb. She’d have been perfectly happy to stay there forever. But she got evicted from her cozy, dark, warm, peaceful nest where she could always hear your heartbeat and voice and feel you moving.

Basically, she was one with you.

Now she doesn’t understand why she’s cold and alone in a big open crib where she can’t hear or feel you and as far as she knows, you’re gone forever. Any time you set her down, she has to experience this fear all over again. Is it any wonder she fights so hard to keep you close?

As you feel frustration welling up inside of you, try to remember your baby’s side of things. It really does help.

8. Don’t compare

Just as you need to change your expectations for yourself, you also need to alter your expectations for you baby. He isn’t like your friends’ babies or the way your grandma remembers babies or the babies in the instruction manuals. So stop comparing him to others, and don’t be surprised when parenting strategies other people rave about don’t work for your special munchkin.

9. Trust your instincts

People will give you a lot of advice, most of it well-meant, on how to ‘fix’ various aspects of your situation. Listen politely, but don’t just accept it at face value. You know your baby best, and you probably have a good idea of what will and won’t work. Weigh the advice you receive against your instincts and beliefs.

Feel like your instincts aren’t very strong? Here’s how to buff them up.

Additional resources

If you have a high-need baby, you’ve got to get The Fussy Baby Book: Parenting Your High-Need Child from Birth to Age Five by Dr. William Sears and his wife Martha Sears. Reading it for the first time just about had me in tears because it was the first time I truly felt that someone else really understood what I was going though.

For more encouragement on dealing with your “dragon baby,” you can check out The Fussy Baby Site.

I have a post with a free printable (!) filled with unique ways to soothe your fussy baby.

I also have a post on how to take your high-need baby to church (without using the nursery).

Most People Will Not Understand Your Situation

There will be many days when you just want a break so badly that you feel like you would do nearly anything to get one. You may vent to friends or family about the challenges you’re up against, and they will likely all have advice for you.

They may tell you you hold your baby too much, that you let your baby manipulate you, that you just need fill-in-the-blank program they used to get their baby sleeping/on a schedule/self-soothing/independent/etc. Their ‘proven’ results will make you wonder if your baby really is unique, or if you just haven’t stuck with technique long enough to see changes.

Whatever you decide to try is obviously at your discretion, but don’t let yourself be pressured into something that feels wrong for you baby just because someone else is telling you to, I don’t care how many capital letters come after their name, or how many degrees they have.

Some tactics just will not work for you baby, and may deeply undermine your relationship.

Routine vs. Schedule

Let it be known, I am not against loose schedules and consistent routines. I actually think they’re extremely healthy for mom and baby both. However, if you try to tell your high-need baby when to be hungry and when to be sleepy, you are setting yourself up for massive frustration.

Some babies are more agreeable to hard-line schedules and are just happy to be alive. A high-need baby will most likely need more flexibility from you. A baby-led routine works best for us, but that does not mean baby-controlled.

For example, if my daughter normally naps around 9 a.m., but if she clearly isn’t ready to wind down, I let her play longer. However, if she’s sleepy and rubbing her eyes, but fighting sleep, I will put her to sleep. If I didn’t take action based on her cues, she’d never sleep ever again.

Beware of Baby Trainers

Some people will come along and tell you they have a tried-and-true program to get your baby on a strict schedule, where they eat, play, and sleep according to a specific timetable. Proceed with extreme caution when anyone’s platform is based on detachment parenting.

In other words, if someone wants to teach your baby to need you less, walk away. As nice as it might sound to have a baby who puts himself to sleep, self-soothes and stays asleep for x number of hours, and only eats every three hours, let’s remember who we’re talking about here…a baby!

If a person’s age can reasonably measured in days, weeks, or months, we shouldn’t expect them to be self-sufficient!

Trying to teach your baby not to need you will only teach them not to trust you.

They may eventually submit to whatever regimen you’ve implemented, but it does not mean their needs have gone away. You’ve simply taught them there’s no point in communicating their needs because you won’t meet them.

The last thing you want to do is teach your baby their cries–their only form of communication–have no value.

For a high-need baby, training tactics may only exacerbate their needs, and their expression of those needs.

Conclusion: How to Re-Frame Your Attitude Toward Your Fussy/Clingy/Difficult/High-Need Baby

Having a high-need baby does not mean that they will fuss all the time. In fact, because we employed attachment parenting strategies from day one, it was months and months before I realized I had a “fussy” baby. I worked my darndest to meet my baby’s needs, and so she was relatively happy most of the time. What I didn’t know was that her level of demand is not typical.

High-need babies are actually a blessing in disguise!

As parents, we often wonder if we’re doing the right things. A high-need baby will ALWAYS let you know they need something, and whether you’ve correctly interpreted their cues.

High-need babies are dedicated communicators. They want to help you figure out what they need!

High-need babies are more likely to have their needs met than other babies, and they get the highest quality care. For example, all babies need physical contact and touch, but which one is more likely to get the most: the one that lays passively in his crib, or the one who screams every time she is put down?

Having a high-need baby is exciting and engaging! Every day is a new adventure and a new challenge. They will keep you on your toes!

High-need babies help you appreciate the little things more than you ever realized you could or should. You really learn to value and prioritize your personal time on the rare occasions you get it.

High-need babies come with greater challenges, but also greater reward. Their difficult characteristics as little people blossom into powerful personalities as they grow and mature. You get the pride of knowing you raised that amazing person.

A high-need baby’s happiness is hard-won, but well worth it. Don’t give up. You’re doing a good job!

Do you have a high-need baby? What has been your greatest challenge so far? Let me know in the comments!

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