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WHAT IS A HIGH-NEED BABY?

Okay, I admit it. I didn't plan my pregnancy. It was a complete and total surprise to me, even though I should have expected it, what with random diaphragm use and experiencing my first year of marriage. However, when I discovered I was pregnant, the shock was overwhelming.

Eventually, of course, I moved from shock to resignation and then to (mostly) excitement. I had babysat lots of kids in high school, not so long ago. I was young, only 21. I would have a perfect baby (after an uneventful pregnancy and pain-free labor and delivery, of course) and then go back to school or work after I found a suitable daycare. It would be hard, but it could be done, if necessary.

In retrospect, I should have realized something was different. He pounded my bladder and thumped my tummy like he was trying to remodel my uterus. Silly me; I was in denial.

Well, at least the uneventful pregnancy part moved along according to plan. I found a midwife who was wonderful and very experienced, who offered evening appointments so my husband could accompany me after we both finished with work. She also shared my views on childbirth as well as religion, which was a big plus. I gained too much weight, but that could be lost, and some of the literature I read about breastfeeding (which I planned to do) promised faster weight loss when breastfeeding. I wanted what's known as a gentle birth, in a big birthing tub, with my midwife in attendance, her assistant, my husband, my mother, my doula (personal labor and postpartum assistant), and my friend Gretchen taking pictures for posterity. And that's exactly what I got! Except no one ever mentioned how much it would hurt. And no one ever guessed how long I'd have to push (3 hours out of 21). And no one thought that the baby who apparently never slept in the womb would carry that habit out of the womb.

But he did.

"What's wrong with this baby?" was my constant, silent question for the first six weeks postpartum (and off and on for the next four months, in fact). My still-ambivalent feelings towards motherhood weren't helped by the fact that he cried so much! Why wouldn't he let me set him down in his beautiful (garage sale bought) crib for any amount of time? Why, even when I waited until his limbs were limp and his eyelids unmoving, would he immediately stir as I put him down? Why wouldn't he let anyone else hold him? And he hated the car! Who ever heard of a baby who hated the car? Why did he nurse so much (and terrify his father and mother by throwing up vast quantities of undigested milk twice on the bedspread)? Why, oh why, did he sleep so little? Baby Abishai David Judah was, to say the least, quite the handful. See that picture up top? That was his normal expression.

I even experienced really scary feelings. Thoughts like, "I'm a horrible mother," "I hate this baby," "Why can't he be like all the other babies I've ever met?" "What did I do wrong?" floated frequently through my brain. This was especially true when he was screaming inconsolably at 3 a.m. When friends asked fondly, "How do you like being a mother?" I wanted to scream, "I HATE IT! IT'S A NIGHTMARE!" I didn't share this with anybody, of course. Who can admit that they really don't like their child and can't bear his cries? Only someone with a lot more guts than me.

I scoured the baby books and found some answers, but not as many as I'd like. I found labels, most of all. What to Expect the First Year asked in dire fashion, "Is Your Baby Difficult?" Mine fit all the many "difficult baby" categories (active baby, unscheduled baby, unhappy baby...). Dr. Dobson's books labeled him "strong-willed." One book said, "demanding and exhausting." My mother fondly hypothesized that he was teething. And finally, in my childcare Bible, I found a term that didn't make me feel defensive: "high-need."

Yes, my childcare Bible is that magnum opus, The Baby Book. Oh, thank God for Dr. Bill! William Sears, M.D., calmly explained in Chapter Sixteen that he and his wife, Martha, experienced the exact same things I was going through with the birth of their fourth (of eight) baby, Hayden. The conclusion they reached while parenting her was that she just had a higher level of needs than their previous three babies, and they developed a parenting style that fit those needs while still maintaining their own sanity. They even had four more babies after her! That parenting style has been called many things, (natural, instinctive, etc.) but the term you might have heard on a fairly recent episode of the TV show 20/20 is "Attachment Parenting," which I sometimes abbreviate to AP. I should also add that, as usual, the program showed some of the most radical practitioners of AP they could find, and they probably don't represent the majority of Attachment Parents.

At first I was skeptical. This sounded to me like it might result in spoiling my child. The last thing I wanted was a snot-nosed whiner whom nobody wanted to be around. At the time, however, I didn't want to be around Abishai. We were not getting along because my expectations were quite different from his. So, I decided to give Dr. Bill's method a shot.

And guess what? My life got easier. It wasn't easy, not by a long shot, but it did change from the feeling of impending insanity to just the normal new-parent exhaustion. The five techniques my husband Joel and I implemented were: we had a gentle birth (this was before we understood AP, but it's one of the AP hallmarks) we breastfed our baby as soon as he indicated he wanted to eat (which was basically all the time), we slept with our baby in our bed, we wore our baby in a sling most of the day instead of putting him in the crib, carseat, or stroller, and we responded to his crying and cues as soon as was humanly possible. The difference between before and after were amazing.

Enter the detractors. A well-meaning (childless) friend shared how a friend of hers regretted holding her son so much in infancy when he was sick because she was convinced that was why he was so antisocial as a teenager today. (Of course, he also had an all-but-absent father figure and ADHD, but it had to be the holding, right? Mommy was living in a dream world.) Total strangers mentioned that I'd "spoil that baby" if I picked him up every time he cried. My dear midwife (whom I still love) told me he was "manipulating" me because he wanted to be held all the time. We are talking about someone who didn't even know how to smile until he was six weeks old. How could he possibly read my body language and emotional reactions and tailor his actions to manipulate mine already? He's brilliant, of course, but no baby's that brilliant. No, deep down I knew his cries signaled a legitimate need, and I was determined to meet that need as much as possible.

I found some wonderful support by talking to other mothers of high-need babies online, through whom I discovered that as far as high-need babies go, Abishai's not the most difficult. I also clung to my tattered copy of Parenting the Fussy Baby and High-Need Child, by Dr. Sears and Martha Sears. It was my lifesaver!

Abishai is 1 year old as of April 27, 2000. I can't believe how quickly the time has passed, and, best of all, I can't believe how great our relationship is now. I wouldn't trade him for an easy baby for anything. Plus, I've stopped the self-defeating comparisons with other mothers and their babies. It's just not worth it!

The purpose of this page is to help other parents of high-need babies. You might feel like yours is the only baby of her kind, and you may feel isolated and alone, but it just isn't so! You can survive this (short) period of her life, and you can thrive as well. I want to share what worked for us, and why I think it will work for you. I am not saying you are a bad parent if you choose not to do any or all of these things. I don't think I have "arrived" as a parent just because I do these things. I just want to inform you of some options you may not have considered. A good measuring stick for any parental advice is: "How do I feel towards my baby when I follow this advice?" Does it make you feel angry or detached or intolerant toward your little one? Or do you feel loving and attached and understanding? These steps helped me feel loving and attached and understanding when I followed them.

One last thing. Don't knock it till you've tried it! Don't let anybody else knock it, either. Nobody else is the parent of your baby, and about 90% of the parental population had a much easier time of it than you have, so forget them and their easy-baby advice and do what works for you.

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Home What is a high-need baby? Why We Had A Gentle Birth Why We Breastfeed Our Baby
Why We Carry Our Baby So Much Why We Sleep With Our Baby How We Respond to Our Baby's Cries Resources for the Parent of a High-Need Baby
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