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All babies struggle some of the time. Some babies seem to have high needs almost all of the time. Do you have a high maintenance baby who seems to need loads of your attention?

Possible signs and symptoms of high need, struggling babies:

  • sleep problems
  • excessive crying
  • irritability
  • difficult to soothe
  • seem uncomfortable much of the time 
  • excessive clinginess
  • frequently ill

Why is my baby struggling?
Not all babies are alike. There seems to be a basic difference in temperament between babies and there is a strong argument for genetics.  Early environmental circumstances can influence temperament in all kinds of different ways. If your baby has had rather severe demands placed on her early in life, she may struggle more during the first year.

Examples of difficult experiences:

  • illness
  • hospitalization
  • premature birth
  • pain
  • feeding problems
  • family conflict
  • trauma effecting any member of the family
  • loss of the mother (emotionally or physically) 
  • an early separation between mother and child
  • poor attunement between mother and baby

Babies, especially newborns, experience things on a visceral level because higher, more complex, cognitive processes are still developing. Your young baby is intensely focussed on general physical comfort and the basic feel of her environment. She experiences all kinds of things, like hunger, physically. She needs you to do what you can to try to keep her comfortable. Unfortunately, however, there may be times when you cannot make your baby comfortable, no matter how hard you try.

Useful baby info
Babies experience pain as an unidentifiable, persecutory threat that is frightening and dangerous. Pain feels to a baby like a vicious monster is attacking her from the outside.

Illness and physical discomfort
Your baby might sometimes be in pain and she will sometimes be uncomfortable. This is not your fault but it can shatter her basic trust. This is because your baby feels tormented and persecuted by pain. If the pain continues unabated, she can start to believe that the world is not a safe place to be.

Useful parents tips:

  • understand that pain is very traumatic for a baby
  • try to keep physical discomfort to a minimum where possible
  • get medical treatment where it is indicated
  • give your baby lots of tender, gentle comfort when she is in pain
  • do whatever you need to do to ease the discomfort –rocking, bathing in warm water, carry your baby in a papoose, etc
  • try not to leave your baby alone when she is in pain

Staying in tune with your baby
A few decades ago, Donald Winnicott wrote that there is no such thing as a baby. What he meant by this was that a human baby cannot survive alone. It is the mother-infant dyad that is crucial to the psychological and physical growth and development. Babies and newborns in particular are totally dependent on the sensitivity of their mothers. If you do not, for whatever reason, tune well enough into your baby and respond to her with sensitivity, it could lead to a cycle of unhappiness between you and her.

Psychological influences and dynamics within the family
You will never intentionally mean to cause harm to your baby. Most parents do everything they can to give their babies the love and care that they need. But sometimes complicated psychological processes and unconscious feelings within the parent can be troublesome for a baby.

Unconscious psychological dynamics inside of you or between you and your spouse can contribute to problems in your baby such as sleep disturbances, irritability, excessive crying or clinginess. Your baby can pick up or sense disturbances in your psyche. She will sometimes reflect your mental state through her behavior. She is like your mirror. You will probably not be consciously aware of your own dynamics, but when you suspect this is happening, it is a good time to see a psychologist to help you to work things out in your own mind or in your life.

For example, if you are feeling overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood, you will be feeling fragile and you will need to be looked after yourself. Because you are overwhelmed, your baby may have an experience of being uncontained or unheld. Your own mind should be holding your baby’s madness, but it is having trouble holding itself together. Just when you need your baby to be calm and undemanding, she makes excessive demands on you because she picks up your own vulnerability.

Stressful family circumstances that could contribute to your baby’s struggles:

  • money worries
  • adjustments such as moving house
  • problems with other siblings
  • another pregnancy or birth of a sibling 
  • physical or emotional trauma effecting the family
  • conflict or discontent in the relationship between the parents
  • losses such as the death of a grandparent
  • physical or mental illness within or close to the family

A challenge for parents of high need babies
If your baby cries a great deal, sleeps poorly and is generally irritable, it will be more difficult for you to be a sensitive and receptive parent. You will find yourself being pushed to greater limits than parents of babies who are easy to settle and generally seem contented with life. It is therefore more likely that you could behave in a harsh or punitive manner towards your baby. High need babies, because they are demanding, are more likely be smacked, left alone to cry or handled insensitively. You need to be aware of the fact that you are under a great deal of stress. If  you feel the urge to hit your baby, rather walk away from her and ask someone else to take over for a while until you have cooled off. If there is no-one else around, leave your baby alone (in a safe place) for a few minutes until you have recovered.

You need to treat yourself and your baby with great care. Because it is such a challenging task to parent a struggling infant, it can bring about behaviors and emotions in you that could worsen your baby’s fractiousness. Although you may often feel like hitting or shouting at your high need baby, it will only make her more distressed. It will also make you feel guilty. Keep mindful of the approach, the manner and the attitude you have towards your baby. The more in tune you are to her, the better chance there is of alleviating her current distress and the less chance there will be of problems persisting into adulthood. Your baby will learn about unconditional love (or otherwise) from you. When she is given care and attention she learns that she is valued and worthwhile. This represents the beginnings of the development of self-esteem which is a priceless gift that you can give your baby. It is a most valuable asset that will accompany her as she moves through the challenges of childhood, adolescence, into adulthood and beyond.

She’s just spoilt?
You will probably be told by at least one person that your high need baby is “just spoilt”! “Don’t let her manipulate you!” you might hear. Babies are not capable of putting together the complex process of manipulating anyone. Further, babies cannot be “spoilt” and anybody who suggests otherwise should be struck from your list of useful people to have around. Don’t worry that giving in to your baby will get her into a bad habit of relying on you. Babies are supposed to rely on their carers. When your baby is bigger, older and more resourceful, she will not need you in the same way. In the first year of your baby’s life you should not be trying to get her to be self-sufficient. That will come sometime after the first year when she is able to tolerate incrementally larger amounts of self-sufficiency.

What about discipline and punishment?
Don’t try to discipline or punish your high need baby. She is too young to be punished. Her behavior is unpleasant and distressing for you but it is not naughty. Discipline is about teaching a child. This is important as she grows, but during the first year, your baby is teaching you what she needs. You should be teaching her that the world is a safe place to be and she can rely on you to help her through the challenging year of infancy. Once she has this foundation, when she is older, you can think more about setting limits for her when she needs those limits. Of-course, if she is about to pull the wires out of the TV or pull down the telephone onto the floor, you need to protect her (and your house). If she tries to pull another baby’s hair, you need to stop her. Those kinds of limits are about stopping her from doing harm. They are about safety for herself and others. Boundaries and parameters should be put in place for babies only in the interests of safety and their own psychological, physical and developmental needs as well as for your own sanity.

What about the mother, father or caregiver’s needs?
Taking care of your high need baby is enormously stressful. You are exhausted, depleted and desperate. Your baby puts huge demands on your patience, your energy levels and your confidence in your own parenting abilities. You might feel like a failure and you may even feel persecuted or rejected by your own baby. You are likely to feel a great deal of resentment and disappointment because no matter how hard you try, your baby does not seem to feel satisfied or comfortable.

Seek the guidance of a clinical psychologist or a parent-infant psychotherapist if you are finding the demands of your high need baby to be too great.

An adapted version of an extract of Babies in Mind (Juta)
by Jenny Perkel