Many of us grow up with dreams of what life will be like with a new baby. As a child, we may have stuffed a pillow in our shirts and imagined what it must feel like to be pregnant (not me, of course, but SOME people). We pushed our baby dolls around in the stroller and picked her up from time to time to soothe her imaginary cries.
What we don't count on, however, is eventually having a baby (a real one) who doesn't settle when we hold her. Who grunts, and groans and fights her feedings. Who isn't soothed by mom or dad's cuddles or carrying. Who, by all appearances, seems to hate us; at least that's how it feels.
No, this doesn't quite fit with our childhood fantasies of parenting.
As adults, we somehow imagine that as long as we read the baby books and are loving, responsive parents, our babies will stop crying and be content.
And yet, despite our best efforts, our child doesn't always calm when we hold him. We would do anything -- literally, anything -- to get him to sleep, and yet he fights sleep harder than we could have imagined possible.
When he's awake (which is most of the time), he's grumpy, unsettled and has very clear ideas of what he wants -- or more accurately, what he doesn't want.
What calms and soothes her one day doesn't work the next. Just when you think you've figured out that one trick that will get her to sleep, that trick stops working.
Feedings are a nightmare. You always imagined sitting in a rocker with your newborn, gently rocking and feeding her until she very calmly... very gently... closed her eyes and fell asleep. The reality however, is very different. She arches her back, clutches her tiny fists and screams in between frantic sucking. She bobs off and on, and seems ravenously hungry. Yet the food seems to simultaneously nourish and pain her.
When you've finally managed to get him to sleep, he wakes up 5, 10 or 20 minutes later, grumpy as ever, and so obviously in need of sleep. And yet, because it took you an hour or more to get him to sleep, you give up on trying again.
Besides the obvious physical toll, emotionally, you're falling apart. Your family and friends, while obviously well-intentioned, make comments like:
You need to set limits now or she'll become spoiled and think she's the boss.
She's just feeding off your anxiety (because surely, it couldn't be the other way around).
She's so needy because you've taught her to be this way (through co-sleeping/baby wearing/holding her all the time).
And when you try to explain what life has been like for you... the constant crying and fussing... the unnaturally long periods of time without sleep... the emotional and physical toll parenting has taken on you....
And you try to explain to them, in the only way you know how, that your baby is 'high needs,' they tell you:
But all babies are high needs!
And all your struggles, all your frustrations and all your exhaustion are dismissed with that one, short sentence.
The natural implication is that if your baby is just like every other baby out there, there must be something wrong with YOU.
Is it that you just can't hack this parenting thing? Maybe you have unrealistic expectations of how babies behave. Or maybe everyone is right, and you've somehow made your baby this way.
The guilt and second-guessing are never-ending. Yet, deep down, you know that this isn't your fault. You noticed very early on that your baby was more particular, more sensitive and more intense than other babies. Before the effects of your parenting could possibly have 'made' her this way.
Everything you've done to this point -- the constant holding, nursing and carrying -- have been done in a desperate (yet often futile) attempt to soothe your fussy baby.
You respond with lightning speed to her cries, because you know that if you don't, the crying will just escalate out of control.
You wear her in a sling or wrap 20 hours a day, not because you love having a squirmy, sweaty baby attached to you every waking moment, but because it's the only way you can possibly get anything done.
You avoid hardline discipline strategies because you know they won't work for your spirited toddler; you're not "giving in"; you're trying to parent in a way that actually works for your child.
If you've never had a high needs baby, you may still be saying, "But, all babies are high needs!" However, if you've had a non-sleeping, grumpy, crying, discontent baby, you know that not all babies are like this.
And let me be the one to tell you that while all babies need our love, nurturing and responsive presence. NOT all babies are high needs. And it's a good thing they're not, given how many parents I talk to refuse to have any more kids following their high needs child!
You didn't make your child this way. It isn't because of anything you did or didn't do. Some kids are more sensitive, more perceptive and more intense than others.
Now it's up to you to parent in a way that respects your child's unique temperament, while also keeping yourself sane. When people criticize you or give you unwanted advice, smile and nod, and remind yourself you're doing what you need to do.
As your baby gets bigger and he learned new skills, he'll get easier, and parenting will start to become more enjoyable (trust me... it really does happen!)
In the meantime, keep soldiering on, and do what you need to do to survive!
Holly Klaassen is the founder of The Fussy Baby Site, a support site for parents of fussy, colicky and high need babies and toddlers. She's also the author of Sleep Training and High Need Babies, a guilt-free guide to which sleep training/learning methods work (and don't work) for our sensitive, high need kiddos.