Nighttime parenting is hard enough, but add a fussy baby into the mix, and you're guaranteed more than a few sleepless nights. Here's how we've made it work

Getting a Fussy Baby to Sleep: The Unique Challenges and How We’ve Made It Work

I am so tired. Maybe you are, too.

My daughter turned one in September, making it an official year since I’ve been able to sleep through the night. (Longer, really, since I had to get up to pee so frequently during the last trimester of pregnancy.)

There are so many blog posts, books, courses, even coaches, to teach you how to get your baby to sleep through the night, so your first thought might be, why haven’t we made it happen?

In this post, I’m going to share with you some of the unique challenges sleep poses for the high-need baby, the arrangement that has worked best in our home, and how we are moving forward with transitioning our toddler-baby to her own bed.

If you’re struggling with exhaustion and a hearty dose of sleep deprivation, I hope you’re able to glean from our experience to find what works for you.

Please note that this is not a how-to! We are still figuring things out ourselves. I wanted to share with you what has kept us alive and sane up to this point, and let you know if sleep is something you and your baby are struggling with, it could be because you have a high-need baby!

Being Tired is an Unpleasant Reality

First of all, I want to tell you there’s no quick or easy fix to dilemmas involving baby sleep.

If you’re tired, that’s normal! We’ve somehow created this false ideal of a ten week old baby learning to sleep eight to twelve through the night, and convinced all the mamas that this is the golden standard.

But this isn’t how babies come programmed. (Find out why I don’t want my infant sleeping through the night.)

You can choose to fight it, but you may find that conventional sleeping arrangements aren’t working for your family, no matter how hard you try.

Just because your baby doesn’t sleep through the night doesn’t make them a “bad sleeper.” Just like babies who do sleep through the night shouldn’t automatically be labeled “good sleepers.” You don’t know what has gone on behind the scenes to accomplish that feat. Some babies are just naturally more amenable to sleeping longer stretches on their own in their defined spaces, but others are not, and many a parent and baby has gone through long, painful struggles to achieve “good sleep.”

My baby is in the “not” category, as you’ll soon see.

Unique Challenges for Sleep with a High-Need Baby

As I’ve learned over time, our daughter (codename: Carrots) is a high-need baby. As an infant, she fussed a lot, could rarely be put down without hard crying, and needed to nurse far more frequently than other babies. She also would-not-could-not sleep alone.

Here are some of the characteristics of a high-need baby that add an extra layer of challenge to sleeping:

High-need babies need physical contact

If you have a high-need baby, you’ll quickly notice the heightened need for constant physical contact. This need does not dissipate just because it gets dark outside. They want to be close at all times, and during sleep is no exception. These types of babies are exceedingly sensitive, so if you try to put them down, they always seem to know, regardless of how deeply they were sleeping.

High-need [breastfed] babies nurse A LOT

What is generally known as “cluster-feeding” for other babies is just normal feeding for the high-need baby. This intense drive to suckle continues throughout the dark hours as well. If you’re trying to get your baby to sleep in a crib, you’ll find yourself having to get up every hour and a half to two hours (or even more frequently) to soothe a “hungry” baby. When we first brought my daughter home from the hospital, she literally nursed around the clock, and stayed latched more than not those first few weeks. As she got a little older, the duration of her nighttime nursing sessions shortened, but their frequency stayed high.

In fact, even now, upwards of one year old, she still wakes around 3-6 times a night to nurse. [Please send caffeine].

High-need babies can have a difficult time falling asleep and staying that way

When our baby was an infant, I walked miles around our apartment every single day just to get her to sleep. As much as she wouldn’t let me put her down, I also couldn’t sit with her as long as she was awake. She had (HAS) an extreme need to be moving constantly. We employed every sleep prop in the book, and I won’t apologize for it.

I’ve heard other moms say, “We were bad, and we rocked her to sleep at night.” THAT’S NOT BAD, MAMA! Please, PLEASE don’t buy into that nonsense. Babies were meant to be held, touched, rocked, soothed. They’re flippin’ babies for crying out loud!

In addition to the struggle to get her to sleep, she has a difficult time staying asleep, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, high-need babies are very sensitive to their environments. Even the creak of my ankle can wake her up. She would almost always wake if I tried to lay her down. In addition, as I mentioned in the last section, she needs to nurse so often (which is actually a built in safety mechanism for newborns!).

High-need babies don’t give up

Through “sleep-training,” either gentle or not-so-gentle, some babies can be dissuaded from vocalizing their needs. Some babies just naturally have easier temperaments can be content to lay by themselves more than others.

[I am not here to bash sleep-training. I don’t think you’re a bad mom if that’s a tool you choose. My personal choice is not to use it in a baby’s first year.]

The high-need baby is not so easily deterred. In fact, tactics that involve withdrawing attention from the high-need baby will likely only exacerbate their needs, and cause them to cry harder, louder, and longer. Besides causing high-need babies to cry more in the moment, this kind of approach can cause deeper sleep problems in the long term because they may become increasingly distrustful of you and learn to associate their crib with fear and isolation.

As if daytime with a high-need baby wasn’t challenging enough, all of these qualities combine to make for a routinely exhausting nighttime.

The Best Sleeping Arrangement for Our High-Need Baby

The crib didn’t work for us

We discovered really quickly when we brought our daughter home that if we tried to enforce a conventional sleeping arrangement, we were never, ever going to get any sleep. We weren’t willing to leave her in the crib to cry until she gave up (and with a high-need baby, doing so would truly have to break her spirit), but we just couldn’t be getting up as often as every half an hour.

A bassinet didn’t work for us

We very quickly agreed to embrace co-sleeping, but the idea made us nervous, so we wanted to start by trying a structured co-sleeper. Basically, it was like a little bassinet that goes in the bed with you.

  • Problem 1) we only have a queen bed, and putting a large metal frame between us left us both falling off the edges.
  • Problem 2) it doesn’t answer the high-need baby’s desire for sustained physical contact.
  • Problem 3) it was still inconvenient to have to sit up and turn around to pick the baby up out of it (if that sounds lazy to you, think back to how your nether-regions felt postpartum and it’ll make more sense).
  • Problem 4) she still wouldn’t sleep in it.

So we ditched the bulky, uncomfortable metal apparatus and tried co-sleeping for real. The first couple of weeks, I co-slept with her in my nursing chair because I was deliriously tired, still adjusting to the tiny human sharing my space, and I was so afraid I would roll on her. After that, she joined us in bed.

Co-sleeping saved our lives

We slept so well, all things considered. She could nurse for as long and as often as she wanted, and I only had to wake up long enough to help her latch. She never actually had to cry (and wake my husband, who was in law school and working full time). We were getting good rest.

Wherever we went, people always remarked how well rested we looked. We just smiled to each other knowingly, and told them she slept like a baby!

If I could go back, I wouldn’t have bothered cramping my space with a crib for quite some time. We didn’t need it. For the times I did put her down, a Boppy Newborn Lounger worked great. We could have made do with that and a bassinet.

Making the Transition to a Crib

So we were sleeping great, literally like one big (small) happy family…

Except then she got big. Around nine months, I was getting tired of being mauled and kicked in my sleep, as well as having something literally attached to me all night.

We tried transitioning her to her crib, but it just wasn’t working. I tried an extremely gentle method, where I would put her to sleep in her crib, get up to nurse her every time she woke, and put her back in her crib when she was asleep again. After a week, though, she was still waking as much as six times per night. So we decided she wasn’t ready.

Now that she’s older, we’re trying again, but it is still a struggle. She is able to go to sleep on her own better (laying down sleepy and falling asleep on her own), but she does not self-soothe when she wakes up. For now, we start her in her own bed, and then when she wakes, she joins us in our bed for the remainder of the night.

And that’s okay. I didn’t expect this to be easy. I know I have a high-need baby, and I want to do what’s best for her. I know one of these days, we’ll find what works, and I’ll be able to share it with you!

What You Need to Remember When It Comes to Baby Sleep

If you’re struggling with sleep and exhaustion, I would highly encourage you to consider co-sleeping, even if you’re nervous about it. It is actually far safer than Western media would leave you to believe (there are more crib deaths than baby deaths in adult beds, to give you an idea).

Regardless of what you decide to do, just know that you are not alone. Your “bad sleeper” is not the statistical outlier. Your situation is not a-typical. On the contrary, so so so many families struggle with the relationship between sleep and babies/young children. I wish I could offer you an easy answer, because believe me, I KNOW how hard it is to be exhausted ALL. THE. TIME. and just want one beautiful night of uninterrupted sleep.

But I want to remind you what a good mama you are, waking up to soothe your baby, make them feel safe and secure, and let them know they’re loved. Every time you feel that tired pull around your eyes during the day and long for nap, it’s because YOU ARE A GOOD MAMA.

If you think you have a high-need baby, here are some other posts I wrote to help you:

If you think someone else could benefit from this post, please share it:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *