About the Author
"Dr. Bill" (as his little patients call him) has been a guest on over 100 television shows including: "20/20," "Donahue," "Good Morning America," "Oprah Winfrey," "CBS This Morning," "CNN," "Today Show," and "Dateline." Dr. Bill and Martha Sears host a one-hour, twice a month on-line show for Time Warner at Parenting.com. William and Martha are best known for their seven most recent books published by Little Brown: THE PREGNANCY BOOK, THE BIRTH BOOK, THE BABY BOOK, THE DISCIPLINE BOOK, THE BREASTFEEDING BOOK, THE FUSSY BABY BOOK, THE A.D.D. BOOK, and THE FAMILY HEALTH AND NUTRITION BOOK, and have just given birth to their new website AskDrSears.com.
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Characteristics of High-Need Babies
High need babies share certain traits. Every high-need baby may not show all of these behaviors all the time, and in my experience, many babies show some of these traits at some point during early infancy. Whether or not a baby is describe as "high need" depend on both the degree to which a baby exhibits these traits and the parents' perception of their baby's personality. Here are some ways parents have described their high-need babies to me.
High-need babies are keenly aware of their environment. Noises and distractions cause them to startle easily during the day and make it difficult for them to settle at night. "Easily bothered" is how one mother described her sensitive baby. These children have short fuses and are easily disturbed by any changes which threaten security of their environment. This sensitivity often affects their reactions to unfamiliar caregivers, and they show a high degree of anxiety about strangers. While parents may find this supersensitivity initially exhausting, later on it may be transform from a liability to an asset. High-need children tent to be keenly aware of and curious about their environment.
High-need babies put a lot of energy into their behavior. They cry loudly, laugh with gusto, and are quick to protest if their "meals" are not served instantly. They seem to feel things more deeply and react more forcefully. "He's high gear all the time," observed a tired father. High-need babies protest intensely when things are not to their liking. But they also are capable of forming strong attachments to their caregivers. A baby who strongly protest a separation from his parents is doing so because he is strongly attached to the parents. This close connection will help parents in the months and years to come, since it makes it possible for them to guide and influence their child's behavior.
Mothers of high-need babies often sigh, "I just can't get to him fast enough." The baby conveys a real sense of urgency in his signals. "Red alerts" dominate his crying vocabulary. He has no respect for delays in gratification and does not readily accept alternatives if offered anything other than what he wants. If offered a rattle when he is expecting to be nursed, he will refuse to be distracted. His cries will intensify in protest at having been misread. Being demanding, however is a positive and necessary character trait in high-need babies. It's what gets them the level of care they need to develop their full potential.
"I just can't put him down"
High-need babies crave physical contact. New parents may expect that babies will lie quietly in their cribs or sit passively gazing at adult activities of the latest in baby mobiles. This is certainly not the play profile of the high-need baby (or most other babies). These babies are not known for their ability to be alone. Mothers tell me, "He can't relax by himself." Mother's lap is his chair, her arms and chest his crib, her breasts are his pacifier. Inanimate mother substitutes are often forcefully rejected by these babies.
"He's always on the go"
"There is no such thing as a still shot," said one photographer-father of high-need baby. "His motor seems stuck in fast idle," exclaimed another father. Constant motor activity goes along with the intense and supersensitive personality traits.
Parents inevitably confess, "He wears me out." A high-need baby uses up all of mother's and father's physical, mental, and emotional energy.
While most babies melt and mold into the arms and over the shoulders of their caregivers, the high-need baby will often arch his back and stiffen his arms and legs, protesting any attempt to get him into a relaxed and cuddly position. The term hypertonic describes this muscular tightness. "I can feel the 'wirey' in him, one mother related. This tightness, combined with supersensitivity, makes some babies withdraw from close physical contact. They resist being hemmed in and are more comfortable being held at a distance or facing away from you. They are often the babies who hate being swaddled as newborns. They may want to be with a parent, but they also want to be in control of how close they are held.
"Unsatisfied and unpredictable"
High-need babies are inconsistently appeased. What works one day often fails the next. As one exhausted mother exclaimed, "Just when I think I have the game won, the baby ups the ante."
"He wants to nurse all the time"
The term "feeding schedule is not in the high-need baby's vocabulary. These babies often need prolonged periods of non-nutritive comfort sucking and are slow to wean.
These super-aware babies do not settle easily. They awaken frequently and seldom reward mother with lengthy naps. "Why do high-need babies need more of anything but sleep?" lamented tired mother.