Why following your instincts is even more challenging if your baby has high end needs

Why following your instincts is even more challenging if your baby has high end needs

Honouring your instincts and mothering the way that feels right for you is extremely challenging in today’s society that values styles of parenting that are very ‘textbook’ and focus heavily on setting boundaries, routines and limits on responsiveness right from the very early days of a baby’s life. Anyone who has opted to follow their baby’s lead when it comes to nursing and sleep will tell you it can be a lonely path to take and it is hard not to doubt yourself and your baby as you make your way through this season in life with all the twists, turns and challenges it naturally takes. I’d like shed some light on a subgroup of mothers who face even heavier challenges … the mother of the high end needs baby.  

I was just at the park with my kids and I was standing with a group of mums when one mum asked the other if she was getting any more sleep as she’d looked shattered the previous day. The mum says, ‘oh my gosh, I’m just so exhausted! My little guy (about 6 months) has started waking twice overnight and my big guy woke for a drink and has done for a few nights in a row. The baby seems hungry but oh my god, I’m exhausted!’

Now I’m not claiming she wasn’t exhausted. In her experience, she most likely is.

But, I swear to god, if I’d heard that same conversation a couple of years ago while I mothered my first high needs baby, I would have-

a. Wanted to slap her across the face
b. Burst into tears and shaken her while I screamed, ‘exhausted? I’ll show you f#%^ing exhausted!’ then run away and gone home with my little sleep thief feeling even more shit and alone because no one else seemed to get it.
c. Or most likely, just walked away with my baby quickly to hide my tears and gone home feeling desperately alone.

Now, I realise that most people who already follow their baby’s sleep lead would know that 2 wake ups a night at 6 months freaking rocks and is absolutely normal BUT for the mother who is following her wakeful little firecracker’s lead, two wake ups can sound like the ultimate luxurious dream as she wakes for the 6+ time that night.

It’s not just that it’s hard for this mother to feel as though she is understood (because let’s face it, she’s largely not), what’s even harder is for this mother to be able to keep any faith in herself and her baby and what they are doing as a pair when everyone around them seems to experience this infant sleep business in such a different way.

Why can’t my baby sleep like that? Why does my baby wake so excessively? Is there something wrong with them? Have I created this mess? Maybe it’s because I breastfeed to sleep? Maybe I do have to teach my baby to self soothe so they can link sleep cycles? Maybe it’s because I’m drinking a coffee a day now? Maybe it’s because I am misunderstanding my baby’s early sleep cues and missing their window? Maybe it’s because I let my baby catnap during the day? Maybe I need to start solids? Maybe a bedtime bottle of formula? Maybe it’s because we bedshare? Maybe I should try the cot again?

I can safely say as a person on the outside who once lived inside this confusing, disheartening, sleep deprived, muddled haze, that provided your baby has been checked out for any underlying health issues that may be exacerbating their normal wakeful behaviour, you have not done a single thing to cause this waking. Your little person just happens to have an intense need for parenting both day and night. It is normal for a baby to wake and nurse back to sleep frequently at night. It is physiologically impossible for an infant or toddler to soothe themselves from a place of distress and therefore, self soothing is not something you can teach your baby.

This may feel like cold comfort to the mother in the thick of living and loving their high needs person but I can tell you now, the first time I heard this, I felt like an enormous weight lifted off my shoulders …

It was no longer MY fault.

It was no longer my BABY’s fault.

And, it felt almost heavenly to know I was not alone.

And still, the weight would grow heavier and heavier and heavier over time as the relentless waking, the relentless weariness, the relentless need for comfort day after night after day after day after night …

I would cycle through patches of extreme vulnerability so frequently and all of the beauty that a gentler approach to parenting would become tainted by my exhaustion. The questions and doubts would creep on in and heaven forbid I showed it to anyone for I’d be swooped on by pitying faces and sleep training promises and told my baby was manipulating me and all about the good old rod I’d created and how abnormal he was and how unnecessary breastfeeding at night was.

It may be seen as super judgemental for a gentle parent to propose that maybe a mainstream parenting technique like sleep training is inappropriate but my goodness, in my experience it’s a bloody free for all when it comes to advice coming from the other way.

My gentle ways that felt so right even if I was shattered and brought my baby so much comfort were routinely ripped to shreds which in effect, ripped me and my extraordinary efforts to shreds, too. Society held so little value for the huge amount of blood, sweat and tears I poured into that baby of mine. I was treated as though I was a bit crazy, a bit of an alternative hippy and once people learned of my complete distaste for sleep training (even if they knew what we had gone through), they so often gave me that pitiful shrug and head tilt, of ‘oh well, if you aren’t willing to do it then I guess you’ll just have to stay tired.’

So little empathy.

No true understanding.

It was a truly lonely journey.

I had to cling to little things to get me through. I had to tell myself and my baby frequently that we were a team and we’d get through this together. Posts on The Milk Meg that normalised night waking and boobin all night became a lifeline. Pinky McKay’s reassuring articles about breastfeeding and soothing a baby to sleep helped me gain more confidence in why it felt right to help my baby so. The 12 Features of the High Needs Baby by Dr William Sears saw me in tears … for the first time, someone seemed to ‘get’ my baby. Evolutionary Parenting and Sarah Ockwell Smith helped me better understand why sleep training is not something any baby needs but why it is so popular. I found the amazing books Sweet Sleep by La Leche League and The Discontented Little Baby Book by Dr Pamela Douglas and learned so much about normal infant sleep patterns.

I looked, learned and reached out and you know what I found in all of this … I was so far from alone.

My baby was not a freak.

And I most certainly was not the only mother sitting by herself crying over the fact that her friends thought that 2 wake ups at night was something they’d call a ‘bad night’.

To those who have less intense little people, I know how many times you would have experienced doubt and worry on your gentle journey but I ask you to really think of those mothers in both your real and virtual communities who have an extra added layer of ‘hard’ that they are battling through and take time to show them you see them and their incredible efforts and the way they continue on despite the heavy weight of societal pressure telling them they are wrong every chance it gets.

Next time you read a, ‘I never wanted to sleep train but I honestly can’t do this anymore!’ plea, please, I beg you to stop, reflect and then respond. The whole, ‘I could never do that, how could you consider…’ comments are by far the worst.

Talk with this mama. Fill her confidence in mothering with her instincts back up. She needs you to have her back when she’s vulnerable. She needs to know she can do this incredibly hard thing but may need to ask help to keep doing it. She needs your practical help and a little empathy never went astray.

To those mamas with intense little ones, I salute you. You are the unsung heroes of the mothering world and your wee one will forever benefit from the incredible commitment of love, time and patience you have given them. Your efforts are not in vain. You are doing incredibly important work, never doubt it.

 I sincerely hope to see the day where it is normal to nurture your baby and meet them at their point of need regardless of how intense those needs may be. Until then, I will continue to speak of the biological norm and shine a light on the wonderful work being done by gentle mothers the world over that deserves to be revered instead of ridiculed.

I dream of the day we can say we have truly moved beyond the sleep training culture.

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13 thoughts on “Why following your instincts is even more challenging if your baby has high end needs

  1. This post is 100% spot on, and I speak as a dad to a beautiful nearly 6 months old baby with needs that exceed those of many others. Daily my wife sacrifices everything to make sure baba is happy, nurtured and nourished, and this requires 100% effort 100% of the time.

    It is a lonely experience. Attending baby related groups and events is near impossible with a baby who fights sleep with every ounce of energy they have, who isn’t satisfied with being plonked in a carrier or pram, who just won’t nap in the car even after 2 hours of driving because every other attempt at getting a third 30 minute nap has failed BEFORE baba became over tired.

    You don’t want friends to visit and often that extends to family too. You’re too knackered to entertain additional humans when you’ve had 15 hours sleep in the last 5 days and your little human will only nap with you, after 60 minutes of swaying, rocking, dancing, feeding, nappy changing, lather, rinse repeat. Put baby down drowsy or dead to the world is just not a realistic prospect.

    People comment that starting the bed routine at 6pm is too early, when it’ll take the next 12 hours for mama (and me) to total 3-4 hours of very broken sleep each, before I leave the house for work for the next 11 hours and mama’s day starts all over again.

    Anyway, baba’s woken up in my arms now – I just wanted to say what a great post.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks so much for this post.

    “Why can’t my baby sleep like that? Why does my baby wake so excessively? Is there something wrong with them? Have I created this mess? Maybe it’s because I breastfeed to sleep? Maybe I do have to teach my baby to self soothe so they can link sleep cycles? Maybe it’s because I’m drinking a coffee a day now? Maybe it’s because I am misunderstanding my baby’s early sleep cues and missing their window? Maybe it’s because I let my baby catnap during the day? Maybe I need to start solids? Maybe a bedtime bottle of formula? Maybe it’s because we bedshare? Maybe I should try the cot again?”

    Exactly these thoughts were just running through my mind last night when I had a terrible terrible night with baby.. so heartened and relieved to read your post..


  3. Your article is spot on. Intuitive parenting can be such a lonely road. We keep thinking it should be easier like it is for everyone else. But if we follow their path, part of us dies inside and we feel we have lost compassion. We intuitive, baby-led mom’s keep many secrets, as we are often met with looks or outright criticism. I never told most people my daughter had me up 5x a night after two hours of screaming each evening and that I could only function by deciding to cosleep. I didn’t mention that my daughter breastfed for two years and only gave up that night feeding that helped her fall asleep because her new baby brother was hogging mom’s boobs all the time. I didn’t dare tell anyone that my son relied on that one night feeding into his third year and coslept with us into grade school in a bed in our room. If we are lead by love, we do what works and what our kids need. My sensitive kids needed me to hang out in their rooms while they dropped off to sleep when they were young. Some people think you are babying them, but maybe they just needed to feel safe and you are actually helping build their confidence and independence. My heart aches for sleep trained babies and mom’s suffering the guilt that comes with following a program instead of their hearts. Thanks again for sharing your story! My kids are in their early teens now and I would do it all again. I believe the trust and special relationship we have was founded in those early years. I am greatful I chose to swim upstream and follow my heart.


  4. Thank you for your post, it is that very support I needed in my state of exhaustion. It’s so hard to go with your gut when the results are so punishing, when friends who sleep train their placid babies boast of feeling like new women and tell you how much happier their babies are too! (like not only am I a lily-livered, masochistic coward for not sleep training, but I am ultimately forcing my son to endure less than optimal sleep while I disturb HIM all night!)

    It gets to the point where I just don’t talk with friends or family about how wretchedly tired I am to avoid the whole sleep training conversation. Even explaining that my little guy is different from those other babies, that he has demanded to be in my arms almost every minute of his 7-month life, that he flips out to the point of choking and breaking out in hives when I don’t immediately respond to his cries (like when I’m driving on the highway… the worst), just earns me that pitying look that says “sure he’s different, honey, sure”.

    Self-doubt and the desperate need for sleep are constantly warring with this unshakeable instinct that this is what I HAVE to do, even when I can’t articulate a strong justification other than that it makes no sense to me to do otherwise from an evolutionary perspective.

    Finding posts like this shores me up when I am at my lowest.

    My heart bleeds for the mamas that have to go back to work when their little ones are so very young and have to go against their own instincts just to survive. As hard as this feels, my only job is this intense, vigorous, demanding little being I brought into the world and I am not expected to function much beyond that. What a privilege to live in a country that permits me to focus on that one job for now. For the mamas that stay the course while working, I have no words, only a deep, heartfelt salute.


  5. I realized my little girl (4months) was high needs when desperately seeking for answers when she was 3 weeks old. I have three older boys oldest is 23 youngest is 13 she was a surprise obviously but my boys were all easy still are. From the moment she was born I knew she wasnt like my others. We have had a long journey all 4 months of her life from severe silent reflux to milk and soy allergies to her very aware advanced ways. Up until I read this article I never knew there were others that intuitively parented. I’m glad to see that there are others out there that do but especially that other high needs parents do. It is the only way to fully embrace and nurture these intense little people. I hope in the near future that it becomes the norm not just for high needs babies but for all babies. I truly believe it is the natural way we were all meant to parent.


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