Many parents — both first-time parents and ones who already have other children — are surprised by how early they start to see a distinct little personality in their newborn. Indeed, the same way children and adults have different personalities, babies do too.
So while some of these tiny little humans are the epitome of calmness and contentment once all of their needs are met, others are “high need” and require a lot more attention.
A high needs baby is often fussy, demanding, and well, difficult. They may never seem happy or satisfied, which can be exhausting and frustrating, to say the least.
But you’re not alone, and although it may not feel like there’s any end in sight, it also doesn’t mean you have 18 years of this ahead of you.
Many parents go through this with their babies during the first couple of years. But with the right tools and strategies you can get through these early years with your sanity intact.
Let’s first look at how to identify a high needs baby.
To be clear, babies are supposed to cry. They can’t walk, talk, or feed themselves, so crying is the only way for them to let you know their needs.
But if you have other children or you’ve been around other babies, you may feel that your baby cries more than normal, and you might even joke that your baby entered the world being difficult.
But fussiness in itself doesn’t mean that you have a high needs baby. Compare notes with enough parents and you’ll find some fascinating stories: Babies who only smile during diaper changes and frown at all other times, babies who cry the moment they see a new face, babies who are grumpy for 7 hours straight — that’s hours, plural — during the so-called “witching hour.”
But all jokes aside, if your baby’s temperament is more consistently intense than other babies, you could have a “higher maintenance” child on your hands.
Remember: This isn’t a diagnosis
There’s no “high needs baby” diagnosis. It’s not a medical condition, and all babies fuss at times. The characteristics below are just indicators that on the spectrum of baby behavior, yours may be on the needier side.
Usually, these traits resolve themselves as your baby grows into toddlerhood and beyond.
1. Your baby doesn’t nap
According to the National Sleep Foundation, newborns ideally sleep 14 to 17 hours a day, and babies up to 11 months should sleep about 12 to 15 hours a day, although not consecutive hours.
If you have a high needs baby, napping is a luxury that doesn’t occur often in your house. This isn’t to say that your baby doesn’t nap at all. But while other babies slumber for 2 to 3 hours at a time, your baby’s naps are very brief. They might wake up after 20 or 30 minutes, agitated and crying.
2. Your baby has separation anxiety
Some separation anxiety (or “stranger danger“) is perfectly normal, especially around 6 to 12 months.
But given time, some babies don’t flinch when left in the care of relatives or a babysitter. If they feel safe and their needs are met, they’re usually OK.
A high needs baby, on the other hand, may not be as adaptable. They develop a strong attachment to their parents — and might even seem to strongly favor one parent over the other.
Because of separation anxiety, your baby wants you (or your partner), and only you. So any attempts to drop them off at day care or with another caregiver may be greeted with screaming that might continue until you return.
3. Your baby won’t sleep alone
Since a high needs baby has more intense separation anxiety, sleeping in their own room rarely happens. Your baby may only be able to sleep right next to you long after other babies their age have embraced more independence.
You can try a little trickery — you know, putting them in their crib after they fall asleep. Just know that this may or may not work. Your baby might sense your absence and wake up crying within minutes of being put down.
As a reminder, co-sleeping carries a higher risk of SIDS and isn’t advised. So as tempting as it may be — for everyone — to have your baby sleep with you, the best option to keep the peace in this case would be to bring their crib beside your bed.
4. Your baby hates car rides
Some high needs babies also hate confinement and isolation, so as you can imagine, car rides can be a nightmare.
Between separation from you (even if the distance just amounts to front seat to back seat) and being in a confined car seat, your baby may become agitated and cry the moment they’re placed in the seat.
5. Your baby can’t relax
You might feel a little envious when you observe other babies sit happily in their swings and bouncers while their parents enjoy a meal or adult conversation.
When left to entertain themselves, a high needs baby becomes agitated, tense, and cries incessantly until they’re picked up. These babies tend to be extremely active. They’re always moving around, whether they’re being held or sitting in a playpen. They might also move frequently in their sleep.
6. Your baby can’t self-soothe
Learning how to self-soothe is a big milestone for babies. This involves a fussy baby calming themselves by sucking on a pacifier, playing with their hands, or listening to calming music. This teaches them how to cope with uncomfortable situations. But unfortunately, a high needs baby doesn’t self-soothe — so the “cry it out” method doesn’t usually work for them.
Because of their temperament, these babies will fuss, cry, and rely on their parent to soothe their needs. And sometimes, these babies develop a pattern of breastfeeding for comfort, rather than hunger.
7. Your baby is sensitive to touch
Some high needs babies need constant touch and demand to be held around the clock. Yet, others are extremely sensitive to touch and start crying whenever they’re cuddled or swaddled in a blanket. Either extreme may indicate a high needs baby.
8. Your baby doesn’t like too much stimulation
In some cases, even the slightest amount of stimulation can set off a high needs baby.
Some infants can sleep with a radio or TV on in the background, and not flinch at the sound of a vacuum cleaner or other loud noise.
These noises, however, might be too much for a high needs baby to handle. They might melt down when overstimulated in other areas, too, such as being in public or around a lot of people.
Keep in mind, too, that some high needs babies need stimulation to feel calmer. And if so, your baby might be highly agitated at home, but calm down if you go for a walk outdoors or do other things outside the house.
9. Your baby doesn’t have an everyday routine
A regular, consistent routine can make parenting easier. This will help maintain a measure of control and reduce your stress. And many babies benefit from routines as well. But unfortunately, routines don’t always work when caring for a high needs baby.
If your baby is unpredictable, getting them to stick with a routine is difficult, if not impossible. They might wake up, nap, and eat at a different time every single day.
10. Your baby never seems happy or satisfied
Bottom line: If you feel that you’re falling short in the area of raising a happy baby (because your baby just never seems happy), you most likely have what some would call a high needs baby.
You may feel overwhelmed, drained, frustrated, and guilty at times. Just know that your baby’s temperament isn’t your fault, and rest assured that you and your little one are going to be OK.
Some people might refer to a colicky baby as a high needs baby, but there’s a difference.
Colic can also cause frequent, prolonged crying in infants (more than 3 hours a day). But when a baby is colicky, their cries are more often caused by digestive discomfort, maybe due to gas or a milk allergy. The body language of a colicky baby could indicate tummy pain — arching their back, kicking their legs, and passing gas.
Another key difference is that colicky babies can have regular routines. They don’t become overstimulated by people or noise, and they’re generally not as demanding or consistently active.
Another thing to keep in mind is that colic crying tends to calm down around 3 to 4 months of age. Excessive crying with a high needs baby may continue for the first year of life or longer.
The important thing to remember is that having a high needs baby isn’t because you did something to cause it. You might obsess over what you could have done better — or what you didn’t do. But the truth is, some babies are simply born more sensitive than others. And as a result, overstimulation and stress causes them to react differently.
The short answer to this question is that we just don’t know. It’s been suggested that possible causes could include prenatal stress or a traumatic birth. Some babies may become high needs after experiencing some type of separation from their mother at birth. But in some cases, there’s no clear explanation.
If your baby is demanding, intense, and has a hard time adapting, you might fear that they’ll have problems with behavior later in life.
There’s no way to know with certainty how a baby’s temperament will affect them later on. Some studies do suggest that excessive fussiness in infancy can be a risk factor for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
In one analysis, researchers looked at 22 studies on infant regulatory problems in 1,935 children. The studies investigated specifically the possible long-term effects of sleeping problems, excessive crying, and feeding issues. Based on the results, children with these particular regulatory problems were at greater risk for developing behavioral problems.
It’s important to note, though, that this risk was higher in children who had other factors going on within their families or environment.
And, of course, this doesn’t mean that your child will develop ADHD. Many parents report that even when a baby is high needs, their little one’s temperament improves with age and the difficulties become a distant memory.
You can’t change your baby’s temperament or personality. The best thing you can do right now is stay calm, be patient, and wait for your baby’s needs to change. In the meantime, here’s how to avoid losing your cool.
1. Take a break
When your baby only wants you, you might feel guilty leaving them with other family members or a babysitter, especially if you know they’ll scream. But taking a break is how you’re able to recharge and stay calm.
Allow your partner, a babysitter, or family to take over from time to time. Take a nap, go for a walk, or get a massage.
Yes, your baby may cry the entire time that you’re gone. But if you’re confident in your caregiver’s ability to remain calm with a fussy baby, don’t feel guilty about separation.
2. Learn how to read your baby
A high needs baby may react the same in similar situations, providing clues as to what might set them off. For example, your baby may become extremely upset when left in a swing, but doesn’t cry when left in a bouncer.
Be observant and figure out what makes your baby tick. If you can understand their likes and dislikes, you can make adjustments so that they feel more relaxed and happier.
3. Don’t feel guilty about meeting your baby’s needs
If your baby cries all day, every day, well-meaning friends and family might suggest the “cry it out” method or encourage you not to cater to their every need. But while these suggestions might work for a baby that isn’t high needs, they’re not as likely to work with your baby. So don’t feel guilty about catering to their needs.
Right now, your baby needs reassurance. As they become older, start setting limits and saying no, when appropriate.
4. Don’t make comparisons
As hard as it might be, it’s important to avoid comparing your baby to friends’ babies who are calmer and more relaxed. Comparisons don’t help the situation, but only add to your frustrations. Understand that your child is unique and they have unique needs.
Also, step away from Instagram. Those picture-perfect babies you see on social media? They’re only part of the story.
5. Join a support group
Support groups where you can talk with other parents who understand your situation is a great coping tool. You’ll feel less alone, and this is an excellent opportunity to share experiences, tips, and enjoy some much- needed adult interaction.
Parents in your support group are likely to be more patient and sympathetic than most.
To find a support group near you, talk to your pediatrician. They often have resource lists and contact info for local groups. If you’re looking for something a little less formal, consider calling a fellow parent you may have met in a birthing or lactation class and planning a casual get-together. Social media — despite its flaws — can also be a great place to find private groups.
6. Remember, this too shall pass
Family and friends might make this statement after you vent your frustrations. It may seem like a canned response, but it’s actually great advice.
It’s important to remember that this phase is temporary and many babies outgrow their neediness. So while they require a little extra love and attention now, their behavior won’t always be so erratic.
A high needs baby can be physically exhausting and mentally draining. Yet, if you learn how to understand your child’s cues, take breaks, and get support, it’ll be easier to cope until this phase passes.
Of course, if your gut tells you that something is wrong with your baby, talk to your pediatrician.