4 Expert Ways to Ease a Fussy Baby

by William Sears, M.d.

4 Expert Ways to Ease a Fussy Baby

How to take cues from your baby to stop the crying

Hayden was our fourth child, and our first girl. By the time she was 48 hours old, we knew there was something different about her, 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 plans.

As a newborn, Hayden craved body contact; 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. She cried with a ferociousness that made it impossible to ignore her. Martha and I quickly learned that the only way to earn a little respite was to respond to her needs. As long as she was in our arms, she was happy. In fact, she was delightful — curious, alert, active, and very responsive to attention. Within a few weeks, we realized Hayden simply needed her own style of parenting, and it required more holding, touching, soothing, more … well, everything.

But there were times when Martha’s arms and patience simply gave out. Exhausted from taking care of a demanding baby, plus three other children, she found it difficult to be the calming presence Hayden needed. We often felt s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d and began to wonder 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 was she so fussy?

We didn’t find the answers to these questions in books; Hayden was not a by-the-book baby. To make it work as her parents, we had to let go of the “shoulds” and instead learn from Hayden. To maintain her happy outlook on life, she needed frequent feedings at the breast, a warm body next to her as she slept, and 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. This is because babies communicate rather than manipulate. 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. Infants with personalities like Hayden’s are often described as 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 even. In fact, parents who have survived and thrived with a high-need baby often tell me 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.

Of course, it’s still hard (and exhausting!), which is why I’ve come up with a few more strategies to make raising a high-need baby easier — and more satisfying:

Get Behind Your Baby’s Eyes As Martha held Hayden and looked into her eyes she conveyed to Hayden an “It’s okay” feeling. Hayden melted contently into Martha’s arms. I later asked Martha how she knew what to do. She said, “I 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 Most high-need babies want to be held all the time. The motion of their parent’s body soothes them — it’s what they’re accustomed to from their time in the womb. Use a baby carrier to make it easier to hold your little one throughout the day. Ask your caregiver, too, to cuddle as much as possible. High-need babies often require the “womb” a bit longer.

Don’t Worry About “Spoiling” One day Martha said, “Hayden needs me so much I don’t have time to take a shower.” Lovingly, I reminded her that Hayden needs a happy, rested mother. I wore Hayden in a sling and we enjoyed a long walk together while Martha rested. Yes, a high-need baby expects you to drop everything and fix their problem now; this is what makes parenting one so exhausting. But responding to your baby’s needs doesn’t spoil them, it helps them build trust. This trust will help you teach your high-need child patience, because her demands are balanced against the needs of others. But right now, she is telling you that she really can’t wait. In a few years this intense high-need stage will pass. You will then cash in on your investment: A high-trust relationship with your very special child.

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.” My response? “Son, how soon can you start?” 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 one last time until we reached her smiling groom.