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Rethinking Fussy Babies

Hayden was our fourth child, and our first girl. By the time she was 48 hours old, we knew there was something different about this baby, and it had nothing to do with the pink sleepers she wore. Her older brothers -- Jim, Bob, and Peter -- had all been easygoing babies. They breastfed every three hours or so, slept in their cribs at night, and watched contentedly from a baby seat while my wife, Martha, made dinner. But Hayden had other opinions about how mothers should care for babies.

Feeling frazzled
"I can't put her down!" became Martha's constant lament. As a newborn, Hayden craved body contact; she was glued to her mother. We dubbed her the "Velcro baby." If she wasn't in her mom's arms, she wasn't happy. And Hayden never suffered in silence. Everyone in the house, as well as all of our neighbors, knew when Hayden was unhappy: She cried with a ferociousness that made it impossible to ignore her. The then-popular advice to "let her cry it out" was not an option. Hayden knew what she needed and fortunately (or unfortunately) had the persistence to intensify her cries if we didn't respond.

Martha and I quickly learned that the only way to get a little respite from Hayden's wails was to respond to her needs. As long as Hayden was in our arms (especially her mother's), she was happy. In fact, she was delightful -- curious, alert, active, and very responsive to attention from her parents and big brothers. Within a few weeks we realized that Hayden was simply wired differently and needed a different style of parenting. She needed more holding, more touch, more soothing, more ¿well, everything.

But there were times when Martha's arms and her patience simply gave out. Exhausted from taking care of this demanding baby, plus three other children, she found it difficult to be the peaceful, calming presence that Hayden needed. We often felt s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d.During those worn-out early months of Hayden's life, Martha and I wondered what we were doing wrong. Despite our years of experience with the older boys -- not to mention our professional training as a nurse and pediatrician -- our confidence was shaken. Why did this baby seem to be controlling us, instead of us controlling her? Why couldn't we make her be more independent and less needy? Why was she so fussy?

William Sears, M.D., is a Babytalk contributing editor and author of 32 books, including The Baby Book.

Changing our thinking

We didn't find the answers to these questions in advice books for parents; Hayden was not a by-the-book baby. In fact, to make it work as Hayden's parents we had to let go of the "shoulds" and "oughts" that we had picked up from these books. Instead, we had to learn from Hayden.

Our preconceived ideas and our experience with three "easy" babies told us that Hayden should be content to play by herself for a while. But she wasn't. She wanted her parents' attention all the time. She protested every attempt we made at encouraging her to "self-soothe," and our hearts told us that we simply could not let her cry.

Our frazzled nerves agreed. If we didn't run to Hayden the minute she woke up, she would become frantic and angry. We would feel the same as we tried to calm her. It seemed to us that Hayden needed our help to maintain her happy outlook on life. We were not "spoiling" her, we were responding to her needs. She needed frequent feedings at the breast. She needed a warm body next to her as she slept. She needed her parents' arms to hold her.

As we made the mind-shift from worrying that our baby was manipulating us to believing that we were giving her what she needed, we found it easier to care for her. We believe babies "communicate," rather than "manipulate." She was still in Martha's arms for much of the day, but it took less energy to carry her around than it did to fight with her about sitting in the bouncer. The more we blocked out negative advice ("you'll spoil her") and our own negative thoughts ("she won't let me do anything"), the more we enjoyed her for who she was: an intense, sensitive child.

The high-need concept

Life with Hayden taught us to listen more sympathetically to mothers in our practice who questioned us about their needy babies. We learned that there were other kids out there like Hayden: very active, emotional, unpredictable, and supersensitive. Infants with personalities like this are often described as "fussy babies" or "difficult" or "demanding." But thinking of your baby as unusually cranky or unhappy doesn't make it any easier to care for that baby 24/7. That's why Martha and I came up with the term "high-need baby."

Time and again, we have found that when a mother changes her mindset from "fussy baby" to "high-need baby," she feels better about being a parent. Being "high-need" makes her baby sound special, gifted. (In fact, parents who have survived and thrived with a high-need baby often say that their child grew into a particularly creative, communicative, and sensitive person.) Finally, the term suggests what moms and dads should do: Give the baby more of what she needs -- more touch, more understanding, more sensitivity.

Of course, it's still hard sometimes. Here are a few other strategies that make raising a high-need baby easier  -- and more satisfying:

Get behind your baby's eyes. One day, Hayden was throwing what we called a "hissy fit." Martha reacted to Hayden in a way that we later dubbed the "Caribbean attitude": "No problem, you can handle this," Martha said as she calmly talked Hayden through the fit.

I later asked Martha how she knew what to do. She said, "I simply got behind Hayden's eyes and asked myself, 'If I were my baby, how would I want my mother to react?'" When she did that, she saw that Hayden needed a no-nonsense, laid-back presence to tell her that it was all going to be okay.

Hold your baby -- a lot. High-need babies want to be held all the time. The motion of their parent's body soothes them -- it's what they are accustomed to from their time in the womb.

Use a baby sling or other type of carrier to make it easier to hold your baby throughout the day. Ask your caregiver, too, to cuddle your baby as much as possible. High-need babies often require the "womb" a bit longer.

Don't worry about "spoiling." High-need babies let you know when something is bothering them. They also make it clear that they expect you to drop everything and fix the problem now. This is what makes parenting a high-need baby so exhausting. Yet responding to babies' needs builds trust between parent and child -- it doesn't spoil them. Eventually you will help your high-need child learn patience, because her demands must be balanced against the needs of others. But right now, she is telling you that she really can't wait.

One of the highlights of our parenting career was when our high-need baby honored us with a high-cost wedding. In fact, when her fiancé, Jason, asked me for Hayden's hand in marriage, he opened with, "I'd like to live the rest of my life with your high-need daughter." I quickly responded, "Son, how soon can you start?" But as I walked down the aisle with Hayden clutching my arm, I had flashbacks of the clingy baby she once was, and my eyes filled with tears. Now I'd have to let her go. I held on to her as tightly as I could until we reached her smiling groom.

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