Both of my kids were fussy babies. My first child was extreme to the point that it was difficult to find other people willing to hold him, let alone babysit for a couple of hours. He cried constantly throughout the first year of his life.
To improvise, I became a babywearer. I even invested in five different types of baby carriers- one for every possible situation. In order to take a phone call, I had to strap my baby facing out into the Ergo Carrier, stand in front of a mirror and dance. If I stopped bobbing and turning, he started wailing. To cook, I strapped him into the Moby Wrap. My baby bounced on my hips, hands-free, while I sang and prepared meals. For quick errands, I slipped on the Baby Bjorn, and in under fifteen seconds flat we could be off and ready to take on the day.
It didn’t take long before I was officially exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed and questioning my own sanity and ability to parent. I found myself wondering why my baby cried all the time and why I was so inapt to soothe him.
I also pondered the lives of other families. Do other parents keep swaddling well until a year of age to soothe their children? Am I the only one who has to pull over on the freeway because my baby turns purple from crying?
As a professional with years of practical and theoretical experience in the fields of child development and education, I had never come across a child who was this fussy and I felt unprepared to meet my child’s needs. But, my feelings undermined me. The truth was that I was able to meet my son’s needs. I just needed a fresh perspective on the problem.
The Fussy Phase & Beyond
Many healthy infants experience a fussy period in development from about two to ten weeks of age. A minority of babies continue past the normal fussy weeks and remain discontent for a period of up to four months. Many of these babies receive the medical label of colic. And, still, a smaller minority of children will experience fussy behaviors well into late infancy and, sometimes, beyond. If you have a fussy baby, talk to your pediatrician right away to rule out colic and other physical sources of discomfort that may be causing your child’s tears.
Once physical ailments and colic have been ruled out, be open to accepting that your child’s temperament may be the primary culprit at play. Scientist have found that a child’s soothability, resilience, fussiness and attention span are dependent upon environmental conditions, as well as biological variables and how they interact with the left and right frontal cortex in a child’s brain. Also, genetic and epigentic factors can be at play in determining how a child responds to environmental stimuli. Fussy babies have also been found to have brains that are different than easy-going babies. They have what is known as high neuroplasticity.
A Fresh PerSPECTIVE
High neuroplasticity is just a fancy was of saying that the brain can change rapidly, causing a greater level of responsiveness in a child’s brain due to changes in homeostasis caused by varying levels of comfort, hunger, happiness or sadness for example. And while having an ultra plastic brain can lead to extreme lows in negative environments, it can also cause children to thrive in highly supportive, positive environments. Therefore, this difference in wiring, though it is deemed as a negative trait, offers a wonderful, positive twist when properly understood.
Regardless of how well-meaning family, friends, educators or doctors may try to contextualize the challenges your child raises, always remember that your child is not broken, bad or obnoxious. Dr. Sears coined the label “high-needs” baby and there is something important and powerful in this change of rhetoric. Instead of seeing a child as the fussy and broken baby, it is critical that you see your child as healthy and whole, but with a unique set of needs.
Negative labels imply that the human in front of you is damaged goods and that is just how you might unintentionally feel after spending the day with a constant crier. The problem is that if you come to see the child in this way, that you might subconsciously begin to treat them in kind. This can lead to parental resentment of the child, attachment issues, marital stress, parental burnout and general underestimation of the child’s abilities and strengths. And, among other ills, all of these outcomes will lead to more child crying.
The Silver Lining
Having more needs than the average baby isn’t all bad. Fussiness has its virtues. Humans typically have strengths and weakness and often they are interrelated in that some of our greatest strengths stem from our worst weaknesses. This fact is the silver lining.
While your high-needs child might make parenting more complex, he or she is also making parenting a richer experience. Your child possesses the unique ability to see the world in a different way than most infants. In fact, scientists have found fairly convincing evidence that fussy babies tend to be more alert, intelligent, passionate, intuitive and empathetic than content babies.
My assessment is that high-needs babies are more aware of their own frustrations than average babies. However, they still lack general life understanding to help interpret their experiences and emotions. This can trigger anxiety and anxiety leads to tears. In short, high-needs children are aware of more than they can Understand and it confuses them.
How to Soothe a High-Needs Baby
1) Respond to the Baby’s Needs ASAP
Pull-out all the stops. Dip into your savings and hire more help around the house. Splurge on babysitters. Order take-out. Cut-back on your work hours. It is important that you put yourself in a position to be able to fully respond with love and patience to the crying. Repeat the refrain, “It will not always be this hard.” Do what you need to do to make it though this difficult phase with your sanity and marriage intact.
Devote yourself in these early months to setting a healthy emotional foundation for your child’s development. Recall that anxiety is one cause of high-needs babies crying because life doesn’t quite make sense to them and they are uniquely aware of this fact. It is the parent’s privilege and mission to help life make a bit of sense to the child through being lovingly predictable and responsive. If a baby learns to trust his caregiver, he will have a much higher chance of developing trust in himself and others later in life.
2) Rotate Toys & Use Activity Centers
*Your baby’s needs will change almost weekly as he or she develops over the first year.
High-needs babies require more stimulation to keep their minds at peace and entertaining your baby works. Keep four or five activity centers in use and plan to rotate your baby in and out of the centers every five to ten minutes, or as needed.
*For great infant toy ideas, visit Intelligent Nest’s Toy Recommendation Guide.
This might look like setting up a tummy time mat, an activity gym, a baby vibration chair, a swing, a doorway bouncer and a Bumbo seat in the main living space. At each station, keep toys and other objects and pictures to study. Rotate toys daily, hourly and even by the minute if needed. You cannot spoil infants and so freely offer plenty of opportunities to engage their body and mind.
Babywearing has been proven to reduce crying in infants. Not all babies like to be carried, but most high-needs babies adapt to it and enjoy it. The extra warmth, rhythmic sounds of your heart beat, swaddling effect, familiar smells, motions of your body and sounds of your voice are all very soothing to an upset baby.
The more you are able and willing to carry your baby, the less upset they will generally be. Babywearing can be taxing (especially to other parents like me who don’t love constant human contact), but it is something that can be adjusted to with time and practice.
A Happy Ending (or Beginning)
My high-needs children are older now and each year has become easier. As I become more acquainted with my children, I am better able to adapt to and predict their needs. I know to plan extra time to fuss over the tightness of socks before boarding the school bus, talk in advance about what will happen at a doctor’s appointment before we arrive and to not serve food that is too hot.
I adore my high-needs kids, not in spite of the fussiness, but because of it. This uniqueness enables them to see so much more of the world, to think deeply and feel passionately. Their thoughts and perceptions about life are beautiful and the privileged of parenting them is worth the extra tears.
- Schmidt et al. Linking Gene, Brain, and Behavior: DRD4, Frontal Asymmetry, and Temperament. Psychological Science, 2009; 20 (7): 831 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02374.x