How to Raise a Healthy High-Needs Baby

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD, FAAP on June 16, 2016Written by April Newton on June 16, 2016

A “high-needs” baby is a simple description for a complicated little person.

If you have a high-needs baby, whether it’s your first child or your fifth child, your new baby experience probably differs from that of other families, and it can be hard to get help. Many well-meaning friends, family members, and professionals will likely tell you that it’s all in your head, that you are overtired, or that your baby is spoiled.

Rest assured that even when you feel most isolated, there are other parents struggling through sleepless nights, difficult feedings, and plans that never seem to go as expected.

Here are a few tools to help both you and your high-needs baby thrive through the toughest phases.

What does high-needs mean?

Healthcare professionals coined the term “high-needs baby” for children who are more than just “fussy.”

Many high-needs babies don’t sleep well and some never develop any regular eating patterns. High-needs babies may have very specific discomfort issues like a blanket they don’t care for or a position they don’t like, or they may just generally require a lot of extra attention.

High-needs babies often seem anxious, they cry more easily and more loudly than other babies, and they may expect to be held more often and for longer than others. While other babies may be able to sleep while you run errands and are able to adapt to most environments, high-needs babies are often stimulated (and unhappy) in new surroundings.

What parents need to know

There is no predicting whether you will have a high-needs baby. A pregnant woman does nothing to cause or prevent her child from being high-needs.

You also can’t do anything to “fix” your high-needs baby. Neither the baby nor you have broken anything. Just like adults, babies have different personalities and different temperaments.

Some are very laid back and some want everything to be exactly the way they want it, right now.

Not in danger, just demanding

It’s important to note that high-needs babies aren’t the same as babies with an illness or those who have special needs.

Occasionally, babies will let you know they are sick by exhibiting some of the same behavior as a high-needs baby. If you suspect your child has a health concern or a disorder that needs diagnosis and treatment, then talk to your healthcare provider right away.

Otherwise, a high-needs baby is going to grow and thrive, just like any other baby — though maybe a little more loudly.

What do high-needs babies need?

If you have a high-needs baby, you’ve probably been holding and feeding your little one a lot. Your little one may only sleep in short spurts, even at night, so you’re probably very, very tired. If you’re searching for suggestions for how to cope, or ideas from parents who’ve been here before, there are some useful resources out there.

First, nearly every parents’ website that addresses high-needs babies suggests attachment parenting methods for coming to grips with your child’s needs. There is controversy to attachment parenting: It suggests a lot of time and physical investment, primarily by mothers.

Some researchers also point to the teachings of attachment parenting for the much criticized “intense mothering” style. As with all parenting style choices, never feel pressure to follow the practice to the letter. Figure out which parts of the approach work well for you and your family. And note that both parents are capable of recommended tactics like baby wearing.

Recommended books

The Attachment Parenting Book: A Commonsense Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Baby by Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears is considered by many to be the main modern resource for attachment parenting. The Sears’ wrote it after the birth of their fourth child, who was far more demanding than any of their others had been.

The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp was revised and updated in 2015. It’s a good choice for new parents who are looking for information about development as well.

Websites

A helpful website is The Fussy Baby Site. It’s entirely devoted to the experiences of parents and caregivers of high-needs babies. You’ll find advice from parents as well as trusted experts who can help sort through all the different, and sometimes conflicting, information out there.

Keep an eye on the caregiver

Some parents describe high-needs babies as intense, passionate, and demanding.

Those are fair descriptions for a baby who rarely follows schedules, doesn’t sleep soundly or for long periods, and who expects to be in contact with a caregiver most of the time. The experience can be exhausting for parents and caregivers who rarely get downtime as a result of attending to a little one’s demands. It can be even harder if a high-needs baby has older siblings who have their own needs.

It’s important that two-parent households work together to meet the demands of a high-needs baby. Single parents are smart to enlist the help of trustworthy family and friends for occasional relief.

If you know someone with a high-needs baby, and you are willing to help, don’t hesitate to offer 30 minutes of babysitting once in a while. The chance to shower and dress or run to the grocery store can feel like a vacation for someone caring for a high-needs baby.

The takeaway

Caring for a high-needs baby can be demanding and exhausting, but there are approaches that may help your whole family cope.

Attachment parenting may offer some solutions that work well, and don’t be afraid to talk to others about your experiences. You might be surprised by how many other people have found their baby experience to be less than rosy.

Talk to your doctor if you are concerned that your high-needs baby is showing signs of serious health problems. 

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