Toby is 18 months old now and throughout his life I have tried to shy away from using labels because, having been a multitude of labels in my own life, I don’t like them. That said, in the dark days and nights I have done a lot of reading and there is no doubt that Toby ticks ever box under the header of ‘high need’. Raising a high need child is hard work, exhausting in fact, but that doesn’t make it impossible or void of enjoyment.I have debated long and hard about whether to write this; Will I be mocked? Will people think that Phil and I are bad parents? Will we be seen as making excuses? However a couple of nights ago at 11:30pm, whilst Phil tried to settle a screaming, thrashing Toby who had woken up in an absolute state, I read an article over on The Fussy Baby Site which had me in tears and I realised that whether I am mocked by others or not, if I can reach out to other parents raising a high need child and make them feel less alone – as I did through that article – then it’s worth it.
What Is a High Need Baby or Toddler?
Well the clue is in the title, but we’re not just talking about babies who cry because otherwise that’s simply every baby ever!
Now obviously all babies and toddlers depend on their caregivers for everything from feeding to sleeping, playing to hygiene, however a high need or fussy baby and toddler isn’t content with their needs being met. They don’t just cry they scream, they’re rarely settled and their parents will often be seen sporting dark, swollen eyes that would rival a cage fighter fresh from the ring. Or cage. Whatever.
High need children require a lot more input than their peers, through comfort, emotional support, sleeping, feeding and general life skills. This can bring many challenges and I want to address the main points that parents in our situation may be struggling with.
Endless Crying and Screaming
Ever heard the words “Ah, it’s colic. Once they hit 3 months old it’ll go.”? I know that Phil and I certainly have and in the very early days our naive and sleep deprived brains took some solace in those words. Except of course when we were around other babies with colic who maybe did scream for a few hours in the evening but not regularly for 10 hours a day. Except when we passed the 3 month mark and the screaming didn’t miraculously cease.
All babies cry, all toddlers do too, but a high need child screams. A high need child is rarely settled at any point day or night and you, your other kids, your neighbours, will all have screams ringing in your ears even when a brief moment of silence occurs.
Toby had (has?) silent reflux so he was always in pain as a baby and obviously that played a huge part, but I have also known reflux babies who have barely made a murmur throughout their entire ordeal and as you can see below, this wasn’t the case with Toby.
Yes, all new parents suffer with sleep deprivation, I know. Do all parents of 18 month olds still suffer with it without having had a break? Do all parents spend a year and a half (so far) getting in and out of bed multiple times every single night to deal with the aforementioned screaming? Can all parents count on two whole fingers the number of 12 hour sleep throughs their child has ever, in their entire life, managed?
Then there’s the naps. Ah, naps. Those glorious 30 minutes per day that Toby would give me in order for me to clean, cook, eat, shower, nap myself… Those naps took a huge amount of cooing, singing, rocking and bouncing to even induce and 9/10 times I had to be walking with Toby in his sling in order to get him to sleep. Oh if I had a penny for every time rods for my back were mentioned. Oh how I wish I’d kept a list of everyone who told me I was making said rods for my own back and forced them to be up 10 times a night then deal with relentless screaming all day too.
Do what you need to do to survive.
Now? For a few months now Toby will nap from 30-90 minutes a day so I’m happy with that, if only the night times were as manageable then Phil and I could actually relax!
It’s constant with a high need baby and fussy with a high need toddler. I breastfed Toby for 4 months and nearly brought myself emotionally to my knees by doing so, meaning that when I stopped breastfeeding I was already struggling with the emotional and physical scars from his treacherous newborn days. He would latch and feed for 10 minutes, come off screaming, cry for half an hour to an hour then latch again. 24 hours a day. 7 days a week.
Moving to bottles helped in that Phil and others could help with feeding so I was able to get a break, but it didn’t stop the fact that getting into any sort of routine was impossible because he couldn’t take much between the flares of reflux.
As a toddler, Toby isn’t generally a big eater and he still often wants milk overnight. Some days he will eat 3 full meals, usually it’s 1 or 2 and lately he chews food up, spits it out and asks for something else. Yes, fairly typical toddler behaviour, but he’ll have full blown meltdowns if the replacement food isn’t right there the moment the previous mouthful is rejected and as with the sleeping, after 18 months of it you get pretty jaded.
Is an absolute nightmare! I’m fairly well controlled with my coping mechanisms now but even so, some days are just too much, such as last week when I ended up bawling my eyes out in the middle of Morrison’s.
In the early days, I went to a baby sensory class each week along with my NCT friends and their babies. Each week I was on the verge of tears as Toby screamed through the otherwise serene classes with other babies cooing, watching the pretty lights and only crying when they were getting hungry or tired.
My friends and I would then go for a coffee and cake, where I was without fail the one stood bouncing, rocking, feeding, shushing and otherwise desperately trying to placate my son.
Social interaction is tough with a high need child. Toby is a lot better out of the house these days, he tends to find it harder being at home so that’s helpful as long as we have plans. In those first months though, I would force myself out the door for every play date, walk or group we went to because I felt embarrassed, stressed, emotional and (even though I’m sure I wasn’t) I felt like others would surely judge the frazzled mother who couldn’t even calm a newborn baby.
Now Toby’s needs have changed and as long as he’s pretty much constantly stimulated he’s fine, but that’s not the case at home. Even with a constant supply of toys, activities, singing and Mr Tumble available to him, Toby seems to feel trapped in the house and he needs to be out pretty much all the time unless he’s eating or napping.
Toby – along with one another of course – is the love of mine and Phil’s lives, but at times we have both felt like we’ve struggled to have a true relationship with him, because he used to reject all typical forms of comfort. As a baby, comfort came to Toby by way of going outside to look at the trees, not cuddles.
In recent weeks, he has started to seek out cuddles and we feel like the bond is more of a two-way thing between parent and child, but in the night when he wakes up screaming the last thing he wants is either of us holding him. He thrashes in our arms the way he always did as a baby, throwing himself backwards, flailing his arms about and pushing us away.
Some nights we manage, some nights we’re constantly tag teaming because it feels too personal, too much of a rejection.
Our relationship as husband and wife has changed, too. Now again, I know that the dynamics of a relationship do change when a baby arrives, but we are genuinely too exhausted most days to hold proper conversations. By the time the day is over and Toby’s in bed, we can’t do more than mong out in front of Netflix and even a whole movie takes at least two nights to get through because we need to be in bed by 9pm at the latest in order to be able to function in our jobs and life the following day.
You know your well-meaning friends and family who offer to take your little one out for a while or even overnight? I’m willing to bet you generally say no because you fear both the impact on your child and your friend/family member of not being the one dealing with the constant stream of screaming?
http://nancynorthcott.jim-mcdonald.net/the-joy-of-making/ Stop saying no!
You know what’s a hell of a lot easier than raising a high need child without help? Raising one with help. Yup, it’s the truth! So the person who’s babysitting might have a rough few hours or even a whole day or night but guess what? They can hand your little munchkin back and go about their usual, sleeping lives and you will feel so much better for the odd break!
As for those helpful souls who haven’t listened to a word you’ve tried to say about how hard you’re finding things, those who gleefully proclaim “You just wait until the terrible twos, this is nothing!” Ignore those people. They are no use to you at a time when you need to only surround yourself with people who will support you, not make you feel like a crap parent when you’re at your most vulnerable.
I don’t want this to be a competition as to who has it worse. I know that Phil and I are exceptionally blessed to have a child at all, not to mention one who is healthy, who is clever, who is funny, but does that mean that we can’t be open and honest about just how bloody difficult we’ve had it?
He has improved dramatically in recent months, but we’re currently going through a very tough time where Toby isn’t sleeping, needs to be attached to one of us at all times and seems to have lost all of his confidence so whilst it does get easier as you find ways to cope, you will get the blips too.