Our first baby cried a lot. Maybe it was colic. Maybe it was allergies. Maybe she was spoiled. Okay, kidding about that last one (but don’t think for a second I hadn’t been told that, along with all the previous maybes). One might say she was fussy or difficult; as she didn’t adhere to the conventions of “easy baby”…those being: liking to fall asleep, stay asleep, self-soothe, willingly accept a bottle or a pacifier or a thumb, and be put down or passed to someone else.
I remember asking myself what was wrong – with me, with her, with us as parents. Was it my milk? Did I hold her too much? After all, her pediatrician advised (at our eight week checkup!) not to always offer the breast when she fussed, and to let her cry at increasingly greater time intervals (via a graduated cry it out method), in order that she learn to self-soothe. These suggestions of course didn’t work – she only cried harder, and longer, and got more upset, not less (as did we). Even my lactation consultant told me it was okay to put her down & let her cry for a while. We felt defeated and frustrated and confused. What were we doing wrong?
So, like a good mom, I delved into the internet and baby books – looking for the solution; methods to try, things to do, anything to “fix” the fussiness. Along the way of trying to solve the mystery of the fussy baby, I happened across Dr. Sears describing their 4th baby, whose personality sounded an awful lot like our own baby. He called her personality high need. It was as if a light went on. From that point forward, we adopted the term.
This differentiation – from fussy or colicky to high need – helped me to better understand that our daughter was an individual with distinct feelings and preferences that she was keen to express in ways all her own. Rather than a “difficult” baby with very unspecific and general “colic” or “fussiness” problem, which was perhaps our fault, that needed to be fixed, our daughter became a tiny expressive person, just trying to tell us something; to communicate. It made a huge difference in relating to her, and relating to each other as parents in this process of creating a close family together.
Her crying was not her being manipulative, nor us doing things wrong. Her persistence was her being passionate about her needs; and in understanding that, it was much easier to help her through those needs – and to keep listening to her, and supporting her until we figured out what she was trying to say. I remember the day my husband came in to baby’s room at night, after I’d been pacing the floor with our crying daughter for what seemed like hours. Instead of being fed up or frustrated with the situation, he said, “You know what we figured out the other night? She likes to go up & down. Like this.” He took her from me, and proceeded to do squats while holding her upright; and she quickly stopped crying, and settled into sleep. He was excited to share something they’d figured out together, the previous evening, and she seemed to be as well. Our baby was expressive; we were charged with translating that expression; and it looked like we were finally learning to speak her language. It was liberating.
Now, I’m not going to suggest that simply a name change cures all. A high needs baby isn’t an “easy baby”. But I do believe it helps put baby’s expressions into perspective. Instead of baby having an affliction like fussiness to be fixed or worse – ignored, baby’s expressiveness – her high need is just her way of being. Perhaps this perspective can open parents up to being more creative in translating and calming and empathizing, as it did for us.