Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Difficult Babies and How To Cope With Them

What a promising title for a post! If only there was truly a one-size-fits-all solution to coping with life with a challenging baby.

"Difficult babies" is the top Google search term that brings visitors to this site. So, if you're visiting from Google, welcome. You've come to the right place - I've certainly learnt a thing or two about difficult babies over the last year and a bit.

First of all, let's get a bit of semantics out of the way. "Difficult" makes it sound as if the baby is deliberately trying to annoy you. Some people prefer "challenging" or "spirited". The most official sounding term is "high needs". I like this one because it states quite plainly that the baby is not manipulating you - it has needs. And high ones. It can't help this. It's not the baby's fault and it's not the parents fault. You haven't done anything wrong to make your baby the way it is. It's time to accept the baby's needs and do your best to meet them.

So what is a difficult baby? My little one had all the following endearing traits as a tiny baby:
  • Never sleeping for more than an hour or so at night

  • Not napping for more than twenty minutes during the day, unless she was in the pram or being carried in a sling

  • Crying for hours on end every evening because she was overtired from not getting enough sleep

  • Wanting my nipple in her mouth all the time (OK, this is normal for all newborns)

  • Waking up without fail if I ever tried to put her down in her moses basket

  • Crying if she was ever put down in her bouncy chair

  • Crying if her pram stopped moving

  • Never being content to just sit and watch what was going on around her - needing movement all the time.

I could go on but I think you get the idea of what it is like to have a high needs baby. And if you have Googled "difficult babies", it is highly likely that you are sitting with one right in front of you (or perhaps even latched on to your nipple) and hoping that someone, somewhere is going to be able to help you figure out how to survive this nightmare.

I spent many hours searching the web and the bookshelves for answers. Nothing anybody had written seemed to apply to my baby - she just didn't do what the books said she was supposed to. Reading general parenting forums can be an exquisitely depressing experience for the parent of a high needs baby because everyone else's babies sound so easy (even though their parents still complain about them).

I can't really offer answers, because every baby is different and every parent is different. All I can do is tell you what worked for me, and that was dealing with night-time by taking my baby to bed with me, and buying a sling so that I could easily walk about with my baby during the day.

If, like thousands and thousands of parents of high needs babies, you have found that co-sleeping is the only way you can cope with your baby's fretful sleeping then I just want to say to you: it's OK. You are not making a rod for your own back. Believe it or not, plenty of people do it out of choice. Provided that you follow some basic safety advice you are not putting your baby in any undue danger. You can transition your baby to a cot after as little as six months if you want. Or you might end up liking your night-time cuddles, and sticking with it for a year or two. And you know what else? You will still be able to have sex with your partner even if you co-sleep.

Slings are really helpful for high needs babies. If you wear your baby in the house you can get on with jobs you need to do whilst providing the baby with the movement it needs to calm and soothe it. I love my ring sling because it is great for breastfeeding in, but lots of mums use stretchy wraps like the Moby because they are so comfortable.

As your baby gets older, you will learn what works for it. Maybe it loves being outdoors, in which case a walk in the morning might be just enough to keep it happy for a couple of hours. Perhaps it loves the company of other babies. Getting out to baby groups is the best way of relieving the tension of being stuck at home with a moany baby. And please don't worry that your baby will be the only one crying its head off at the group: babies cry. Everyone understands that. It doesn't reflect badly on you as a mother.

My daughter is 14 months old and I can't say that she has become easy. But things have improved, albeit very slowly. As her personality began to emerge, I fell in love with her for the person she was. I cannot imagine her being in any way different, and I honestly would not change her spirited ways for anything else. Who wants one of those boring babies that lie around staring at the ceiling? You have been chosen to parent one of the bright shining star babies. Accept it and make the most of it. Read the Dr Sears website, where they really understand all about difficult babies. Join an attachment parenting forum where you will find loads of parents of high needs children. Do what you have to do each day and don't worry about anything anyone else says. Anything that makes you and your baby happy is the right thing to do.

Ultimately, we have to learn to trust our babies and accept that their crying and fussiness indicates that they need something - and love and attention is just as valid a need as hunger. You may even begin to suspect that all babies share these needs, but the "difficult" ones are just a lot more determined to make themselves heard. My final consolation is that just because your baby is difficult now does not mean that it will be a tantrumming toddler or a troublesome teenager. In fact it may be the extra love and care that you give it now, as a baby, that helps it to grow up into a confident and happy child.


Mon said...

It's always worth saying this message over and over, for every new parent of a high-needs child (ugh, HATE 'difficult').

I wonder what phrase dives traffic to mine? .checking........ grey hair and crochet beret. lol

But the whole - wear them in a sling so you can get on with chores - was not helpful for me. I couldn't, because of awkward it was with her on the front and not liking the back, because of how exhausted I was, on and on.

The best mesage is - love them for who they are. For yourself, get as much support as you can, and/or shift perceptions.

I don't think a baby that stares at the ceiling and is quiet is boring - that's just who they are as well.
But like you, I wouldn't change my girl's personality for the world.

Lyndsey said...

such a good post! I get so many complaints from clients about having "colicky" children...or high needs children.

The most important thing to remember is that this is your baby...they NEED you at this point, and this is our job as parents to provide whatever it is that they need. You can't spoil a baby, but you also cannot just wish your high needs child into a ceiling staring "good baby".

Cave Mother said...

Mon - as I always say, there's no one size fits all solution. Slings work for a lot of people but obviously most parents in the west have managed without them for centuries. And ceiling staring babies being boring? At least it made me feel better to say that to myself in the bad days!

Lyndsey - You can't wish a high needs baby into being a "good" baby. Indeed. Well said.

Lisa - edenwild said...

I love your very last sentence. It is the basis of how I try my child.

Of course some babies and children are much more vocal of their needs or have more intense needs than other babies, but part of whether we view them as difficult or not is how we are able to cope with them. I think some mothers would just take it all in stride, while others would be pulling their hair out.

All those things you did for your high-needs baby, I automatically did for mine because I assumed in the first place that those were his needs. I just assumed all babies had high needs that might be ignored if the child wasn't vocal enough (there's something about "difficult" babies having a higher survival rate than "easy" babies in the developing world). I sometimes wondered if my child could be colicky and I would just never know it because I never put him down! I always just gave him whatever he needed, and never worried about whether or not he matched up to other children or books, or whatever.

I've been wracking my brain the last several weeks trying to understand the whole "high-needs" baby thing, and it just made my brain go numb. I honestly have no idea if my child is easy, average, or difficult. He's not difficult now, and didn't cry much as a newborn, unless I didn't do all the things you listed. I could put him down occasionally, but I could see him tense up when I did. No crying, but obviously stressed. He slept, but only because he was in the sling or swaddled and walked around for 20 minutes...I think I was able to put him in his crib once or twice. But that's normal, right?

Sorry, I am just spilling out random thoughts I've had swirling in my head for the past month. I don't think I have a difficult child--just a difficult time getting a grip sometimes!

ANYWAY, as for babies who cry a lot (despite loving care): I believe they may have suffered a traumatic birth or are extra-sensitive or just have more stress in their life, and that crying can help them heal from this if they are lovingly supported by their caregivers while they cry. I only wished I had realized this when mine was younger, instead of when he was 8 months old.

Mummy Zen said...

I guess everyone's definition of a 'difficult' baby varies and depends on how you are affected by lots of crying and sleepless nights. I experienced a lot of the things you listed and still remember the first day my husband went back to work and I was at home by myself. The baby got to crying and nothing I could do would stop him - I felt like I'd never be able to cope. Now I look back on that time and realise those 'difficult' moments really didn't last that long and now I have so much fun with my little pal!

I think you have to trust your instincts and do what feels right to you. I got hugely annoyed with the parenting books I was reading and felt like they all contradicted each other. I decided to stop reading them and I honestly think things got easier and better for me as a result.

In conclusion, it will get better and it will become easier for you to cope as you become more in tune with your baby and its needs!

Cave Mother said...

Mummy Zen - "having fun with my little pal" sounds brilliant. That's how motherhood should be, in my opinion.

Laura McIntyre said...

I love reading this, my son (my 3 child)was a high needs baby.
Boy could that kid scream and he did almost every moment when he was not feeding or in a sling (normally both).
I almost ended up desensitised to it , he would be crying and i would be oh yes so he is.

The first few months were not to bad, he fed more or less constantly during the day (yes a sling saved my life) but would sleep great at night. We would snuggle and he would sleep from around 11-6. I could deal with everything then.
At 3 months he rejected co-sleeping , and the next year was horrible. All night long he wanted to feed but it i dared to lie with him he would wake and scream . It seemed he could even tell if i drifted of sitting up as he would wake and scream.
I tried co-sleeping nightly , in different rooms and different ways. My husband tried and it was the same results. (my 2nd daughter also did not like co-sleeping but she loved her own bed and space and slept through from a young age whereas my eldest at almost 4.5 still co-sleeps)

He is almost the same age as your now, 14 months in a few days and i love who he has turned into. Once he really found his feat he changed into a happy little boy who is a fun but energetic toddler and rarely cries and sleeps through the night now and then. Still takes plenty of mummy's milk and adores going in the sling but things are better.

It is always wonderful knowing you are not alone

Hobo Mama said...

Finally catching up on my reading & thankful for this post! I, too, had/have a "spirited" baby. At 2 years now, he's really showing what a sparkling personality he has, and I'm glad he isn't any other way. But it was really hard for the first eighteen months or so. Lots of walking & bouncing, lots and lots of nursing, but still lots of screaming!

I was talking to my mother once about our "difficult" newborn, and she told me that I, too, was one! She said she could never put me down, and I demanded to breastfeed — it sounds like she attachment parented me by default, because that's what I required. I started wondering how that affected how well I turned out! ;) I'm always reminded of the study that showed that fussy babies during a famine received more care from their mothers and were more likely to survive. Whenever Mikko was being particularly...loud, shall we say, I felt better thinking of him as a survivor.

Jessica said...

First of all, I love this post. You have such an easily assertive voice, a trustworthy one :) And what you say is absolutely spot on.

Secondly, I totally love all the comments! It's really cool to hear what everyone went through and how they handled it. For me, my son was really pretty easy. We had a rough patch for a few weeks, but it was honestly MY problem, not his. I was exhausted and desperate for sleep and tried some "techniques" with him that no one liked. But generally speaking, he is one chill dude. Really. I don't know where he came from since both his father and I are pretty tightly wound hahaha.

In the end, it's all about our perception of the situation and our own hardwiring. Cave Baby, and all these other babies, are really lucky to have mommas who are adept at reaching deep down and trying whatever works instead of only going as far as what feels comfortable.

Tina said...

My baby follows all the difficulties you listed. I get jealous when I read about babies sleeping through the night and babies having 1-2 hour naps during the day.
My husband works out of town so it gets even more difficult for me. I love my baby too much to think that she is difficult.
I have decided that I am going to fight the situation. She has high needs but I am going to change her habits slowly. Slow and steady wins the race.
She won't stay alone for even a minute of the day. And it gets to me. I am trying to let her play on her own starting with 5 minutes and extending the time every day.
I am also experimenting night time routines so she would sleep more than one hour at a time.
I have noticed that babies change very fast. Every week they are doing something new and forgeting old habits. So this slow decipline method might just work.

Anonymous said...

I used to babysit twin, 2 month old, very difficult babies. They never wanted to be put down. The minute they were picked up they would stop crying, the minute they were put down, they started again. Sorry, but that is a spoiled child who is carried around all the time and doesn't like anything else. They don't know how to cope without being held. If they were not eating or being carried, they were screaming. I couldn't even sit down with them and hold them, I had to walk the floor.

I lasted 7 weeks because I left that house every day with my nerves hot. Their mother constantly tries to offload them on anyone who will watch them. She complains that she can't get anything done.

IMO if she had made them learn to cope on the floor just a little bit, that wouldn't be so much of a problem and she wouldn't be so stressed out.

I was the third of three babysitters. The first two lasted exactly one day with those two. Since I quit, she hasn't been able to find a permanent replacement. She is a stay at home mom, but doesn't want to take them anywhere with her.

Can't blame her, but she is the reason they are so high needs.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post! It is very comforting to read and has made me think a bit differently about my very demanding fiesty lil man. He is now 5 months old and i really thought his being difficult would subside and that he would get better the older he got, but i'm starting to realize that this may just be how he is and maybe i'm the one who needs to change. I spend most of my days in tears and desparately trying to figure out how to fix the difficultness...but i am growing very weary and tired. I have bookmarked this post so that i can come back and read it again and again. It truly is very comforting...thank you for that because everyone i talk to about my lil guy tells me to just call his doctor because something has to be wrong w/him...god that is so frustrating to hear! I can honestly say that i think he is just a fussy fussy baby. My mother's intuition tells me so. Well anyway, thanks again for sharing. It's nice to hear a comforting voice over all the other noise going around in my neck of the woods.

Unknown said...

I realize this is an old post but I could not read your reply without saying something. Clearly you do not understand the struggle of a parent who is raising a high needs baby. She did not make her twins this way by spoiling them, in fact, you CAN NOT SPOIL A BABY. Your ignorance on this issue is truly baffling and this mother needs love and support not some teenager telling her she has done something wrong.

Elizabeth Carlson said...

I realize this is an old post but I could not read your reply without saying something. Clearly you do not understand the struggle of a parent who is raising a high needs baby. She did not make her twins this way by spoiling them, in fact, you CAN NOT SPOIL A BABY. Your ignorance on this issue is truly baffling and this mother needs love and support not some teenager telling her she has done something wrong.

Lisa said...

Written by someone who never had a truly high needs baby. Mine is 2 and whines all day long about nothing. You can spend a lifetime trying to search for what he needs or wants, come up empty handed and feel like killing yourself 12 times a day because my god you cant take that noise anymore. And all this is after trying to be loving and patient with him, having him sleep in your bed STILL and be basically up your arse 24/7.