High Needs Babies – My Experience Raising a High Needs Toddler (10-18 months)

This is the last High Needs Baby Grows Up post in the series. At the time of this writing, Franklin is a strong, almost-4-year-old boy. At 18 months, he definitely was not a baby anymore. He’s was a 30+ lbs toddler who climbed rock walls, went down slides (“weeee!), ran after the cat (“caaaaaat!”), pointed to his ear saying “This is ear!”, would run toward me smiling with open arms to give me a big hug, gave kisses, ate kale straight off the plant (which he still does), and was a total delight — but not as much as when he turned 2 and 3. It kept getting better and better.

I can’t even tell you how in love with him I am, and what a joy it is to be around him! He’s smart, industrious, funny, and I am so blessed that he chose me to be his mother. We have an incredibly tight bond, and I know that it will remain strong for ever.

Still, there are a few things I’d like to discuss regarding high needs baby, and what I have learned through raising one.

Sleep Issues?

Ah, parents of high needs babies. I hear you. I, too, would wake up every 30 minutes to get Franklin back to sleep. I, too, could not nap, since he would wake up after 20-30 minutes, and if I was not right there, awake, to get him back to sleep, we would start a new cycle of overtiredness/crankiness until the next nap. I, too, would lie awake in my bed while Franklin slept because my mind knew I would need to wake up soon, and so my body would not fall asleep unless I was dead exhausted.

People think that by month 5, most babies sleep through the night. Who perpetuated this myth, I do not know. But let me tell you something. By the time Franklin was 18 months old, he was not sleeping through the night. Was it due to him being high needs? Partly, but not totally.

My friend had a daughter around the time I had Franklin. She would sleep for 4 hour stretches at night right away, and would take 3 hour naps. At 18 months, she still would wake up 3-5 times at night. My other friend had a son a few months after I had Franklin. He would sleep 18 hours a day the first few months. He slept long stretches at night. On top of that, when he did not sleep, she practiced the Cry It Out method with him. At nearly 1 year of age, he still was not sleeping through the night.

I have seen many, many babies and talked to their parents, whether in real life or online. Most babies do not sleep through the night the first 2 years of their life, and waking up after 40 minutes of napping seems incredibly common. It has nothing to do with parenting style, temperament, etc.

These stories about perfect babies who sleep through the night when they’re 5 months old, and play by themselves for hours when they can’t even walk yet, and are happy and cooing when you put them in a bouncy chair for a half hour while you shower, and take 3 hours naps every day, and fall asleep when you put them down in their crib and you say “night night” and turn off the lights… These are all stories. F*cked up stories meant to make parents feel guilty and inadequate. Such kids do exist, but they are rare. So rare I actually never met one, and I can tell you that talking about these things with parents was one of the only things I did for a while, when I wasn’t caring for Franklin hands on. How do they know they exist? Because I was one of them. Then, my parents had my sister, a high needs baby herself. They raised us the same way. They even had more experience raising children after having me, if anything. We are totally different.

If you have a high needs infant, stay strong. At around 13 months of age, Franklin started napping for longer periods of time. Actually, he was sometimes sleeping for 90 minutes straight, which was amazing. I’d walk around the house disoriented, wondering what to do with all this time! I don’t know if anything I did mattered. When he would wake up, I would go back in and nurse him to sleep so he’d start a new cycle. This is described in Elizabeth Pantley’s book, The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night. It’s supposed to make babies sleep longer.

I also kept a strict napping and bedtime schedule with him, so he always knew what to expect. I also always treated him with love and compassion, and tried to show him that sleeping is pleasant, that he should look forward to it. I slept with him every night, and actually stayed by him for every nap even if it meant having him on me in an uncomfortable rocking chair, rocking and rocking. When he was around 18 months and needed to nap, he would ask for it. He’d whine and cling, and I knew he wanted to sleep. We’d go to the bedroom, climb on the bed, he’d start laughing with excitement (I am not kidding), I’d nurse him and he’d be out in 10 minutes flat (if his dad was there, he would wave “bye bye” to him with a smile as we entered the bedroom). No routine, no reading, bath, or whatever. He’s tired, we go to bed, we nurse, he sleeps.

As a high needs child, he definitely would wake up more often than other kids. While most babies and toddlers will wake up between 1 and 5 times a night, at 18 months, Franklin was still waking up every 2 hours or so, sometimes more. But, while before he was doing it out of a genuine need to find comfort, he was now doing it out of habit, and I sensed that. When he turned 18 months, we started doing the Jay Gordon sleep training (an attachment parenting method of night weaning). It wasn’t the miracle solution people talk about, but within the first few weeks, he was able to go back to sleep with his dad and not the boob, and would go for 6 hours without needing the boob to fall back asleep – although he did wake up often still. Naps were a crap shoot. Sometimes he’d sleep for almost 2 hours, sometimes he’d sleep for 40 minutes. On average, he’d sleep for 1 hour and 15 minutes on the dot. You just adapt to it. I have rarely ever relied on caffeine, and even then it’d be tea, not coffee. I managed to finish my Masters degree while taking a double load of classes, wrote 2 books, and somewhat kept my sanity (if not my sense of style!).

Caring for yourself and others – not just the baby

Pre-baby, I would wake up early (between 5 and 6 am), refreshed, and start working with a glass of kefir followed by a cup of magnesium. The house was silent, and I was alone with my thoughts. Then, my husband would wake up, and I would whip up green juices and green smoothies. I would soak nuts, make nut milks, wonder what I’d make for lunch and dinner. I would read blogs, work some more, do yoga and lower body exercises. I would work my abs almost daily, then run to my husband and squeal: “Check out my 6 pack!”. I would watch TV every evening while folding laundry, listen to music, and watch movies with my husband. I pretty much never left the house, and rarely ever saw anyone. I liked it that way. My life was a perfect, comforting routine. And I thought that while a few things would change with the arrival of a baby, many things would stay the same.

When Franklin was born, everything shifted. He was a very, very fussy infant whom I am sure would have gone into full blown colic mode if I had not practiced attachment parenting with him. But my days would start at 5 am when he would wake, and it would be an endless repetition of trying to get him to nap when he was tired, or holding him close and nursing him when he wasn’t as he was still fussy. As he grew bigger, things got better, but I was emotionally exhausted. He would wake up every hour or so at night, and couldn’t stand to be put down during the day. So, I gave him my all, 100% of my time. And during that time, the world kept turning, people changed, and nothing would ever be the same.

My husband was my geeky lover who would work during the day and play World of Warcraft in the evening when he wasn’t watching a movie with me. Everything we did, we did together, because we couldn’t fathom doing anything without the other. Since I was so busy trying to keep Franklin content, my husband let me do my thing as he knew it was so important to me – my whole life, all I ever wanted was a child. And, I wanted to raise this child the way I felt was right, without giving in to society’s demands. He joined a Toastmasters group, climbed up the ladder quickly, became President, started winning contests. He reconnected with high school friends, and made new ones. He developed interests of his own. I didn’t realize what was happening, or didn’t want to acknowledge it, until we moved to Lebanon.

There, my mom was shocked, and told me I was neglecting my couple, and needed to back away from Franklin a bit and get closer to my husband again. I was mad. I had expected people to understand that taking care of Franklin for 2 whole years, 100%, would only mean 2-3% of my entire lifetime. If I could not give such a small part of my life to him, I did not deserve to be a mother. I did not understand why everyone, from many of my online friends to my close family members, did not understand and thought I was crazy. They said I should befriend people who were not raw foodists, people who were “educated” and “not in a cult” to adjust my perspective on life. It only made me more furious.

But, I had to admit they had a point. While I still wholeheartedly believe that the way I raised Franklin was the right way, and even the only way given how high needs he was, I understand that it is still an extreme way of doing things, and is neglectful of anyone but my child. But, did I ask for a high needs infant? No, of course not. I did what I felt was right in a time when everything hit me across the face full force and I was not expecting it.

Why am I saying all this, revealing an intimate part of my life? Because I want to lift this veil of deceit, put an end to this sick joke that the world is playing on first time mothers. Raising a kid isn’t easy, and while people do say it’s the toughest job in the world, I don’t see anything in place that’s meant to help mothers and make their job easier. We are meant to keep a stiff upper lip, break down behind closed doors, and never show our weaknesses.

And what if you have a high needs child? It’s not even acknowledged. When, my voice trembling, I would ask how people manage to do it all over again, with a toddler this time, I was told that “everyone else is doing it”. When I cried that it was too much for me, again, “everyone else is doing it” or I would be told that it’s my fault for trying to raise Franklin too well, that I should take a page out of other moms’ book and put Franklin in daycare. You can do it well and go crazy trying, or you can allow yourself to be an imperfect (to you) mother and find solace in the fact that you can take a daily shower.

So what’s the solution here? What do I recommend to mothers of a high needs child, or even any child? Remember, attachment parenting mother. Remember that what you are doing, raising a child on your own, is not natural. We are social creatures who need to be in a community. No mother raises her child on her own and keeps her sanity intact. Before you give birth, if you can, try to get help. Try and find a good nanny, or if you are lucky, enlist a family member to help out. Have this person bond with your child. This bonding does not mean that your child won’t bond with you as well. Bonding love is not like a pie, where everyone gets a slice until there is no more. It is an endless fountain of love, one that gets stronger with the size of the community.

Your high needs baby will be able to find comfort in other people, which is totally different from self-soothing and finding comfort in material things. It is still a very valid form of comfort. During that time, take care of yourself. Go to the spa. Take a bath. Trim your nails. Go out with your lover to brunch, or a restaurant, or walk around hand in hand in a parc. I used to think that all that was ridiculous, frivolous and unnecessary. I still do, sometimes. But it’s not. Remember that we only think this way because of conditioning, because of what society deems “necessary” and “unnecessary”, especially in America where people are told that working 80 hours a week with 2 weeks of vacation a year is totally normal and natural. Folks, it’s not. It’s pretty much slavery. Take care of yourself, and be proud that you can do that without feeling guilty.

And never, ever compare yourself to other mothers. So what if this mother goes out to dinner every night while her child starts the evening with a 5 hour stretch of sleep? She does not have your child.

So what if that mother puts her baby in a playpen while she takes a shower? She does not have your child.

So what if some other mother puts her 4 week old baby in daycare while she pursues a career, and feels good about it? Good for her, but she does not have your child. Most importantly, she is not you!

And when someone asks you how mothers of 8 children do it, tell them that they have 8 children. The first children are now teenagers, and they can help. They can vacuum, they can do the dishes, they can even cook. They can hold the baby. It’s like having 3 nannies at once helping you out. And often, these people belong to churches and community and often have people over helping out. When people criticize you, don’t even give in to the temptation to start a debate, to prove that yes, you are a good mother. If you care, you are a good mother, and you have nothing to prove to anyone. Nothing. You are a good mother.

What would I do differently?

1. I would teach my child sign language. The next one will be a signing superstar by 12 months if I can help it. I taught Franklin a few signs, like “book” and “more”, and it was great. Instead of whining for food, he’d look at me and sign “more”. Since I had not taught him “food”, “drink”, etc., he would use “more” for nearly everything. I wish I had taught him “milk” (nursing), “potty”, “sleep”, “eat”, “drink”, “shower”, and a few other signs. High needs babies can’t stand not being able to communicate. This helps them talk to you and express themselves when they can’t talk yet.

2. I would not take a double load of classes and write a bunch of books. I am glad I did both, but I realize that I was a little bit of an overachiever there. One of my friends said that attachment parenting is extreme and that not being able to take a daily shower is the proof. Well, I could have taken a daily shower, cut my nails, watched TV etc. I could have. But I had papers to write, deadlines to meet etc. It’s not AP that is extreme, it’s me. I find it quite ironic that people were quick to tell me to put aside Franklin’s needs for my benefit – why punish Franklin, when I’m tackling more than I can handle? Why not tell me to stop studying for a while, for example?

3. I would get a baby monitor. I did not have one for ever, which was silly. When I got one, things changed for the better. I was able to prep food for 15-20 minutes while Franklin napped as he would reliably give me that much time before waking. I was able to watch a movie with my husband when Franklin was down for the night (30 minutes). It really did help.

4. I would get someone to bond with the baby, someone who’s not me. That way, that person can take the baby while I shower, work a little, or just get a break. If possible, I’ll try to teach the next baby to fall asleep without needing the breast (this was impossible with Franklin, and I’m glad I met his needs).

5. I would not worry about back to sleep/tummy to play, light covers and all that crap. I was so scared of SIDS and losing Franklin that I never let him sleep on his tummy until he was like 13 months old! Ridiculous. Next time, if the baby isn’t a back sleeper, he’s going on his side. If he sleeps on his tummy on my chest, you can bet I’m going to fall asleep too. I won’t be afraid of swaddling often,I won’t be afraid of keeping my baby warm even if they recommend against it. One time, my mom took Franklin to sleep in her bed to give us a break, and he slept for 4 hours! She then said she bundled him in a bunch of blankets. I won’t give him to society’s fear tactics anymore.

6. I will not shun toys like I did. When my neighbor brought over her kid’s Exersaucer, I was dead set against using it. And then, one day, when I really needed to shower, I put Franklin in it, and… I showered. It was awesome. 15 minutes a day is nothing if it can help me relax a little. I’m definitely a better mom when I feel good and had some me-time. Everyone is.

7. I will spend a lot of time outside. This was impossible with Franklin and -15 F temperatures, but in Portland, I know things will be different. Babies love to be outside, and I’ll be sure to take plenty of walks and spend time on the grass with the next child.

8. I will not wait for people to offer help. Pretty much no one did, or when they did, they did not understand what I needed. I didn’t want people to take Franklin while I went out. I wanted people to play with Franklin while I was nearby studying or showering. My friend Sharon practiced attachment parenting, and when she came over for Christmas, she was a total natural with Franklin. I was amazed. She took Franklin one morning and I showered. I put on nice clothes. I put on earrings. I put on make up. Later, I made a chocolate yule log for Christmas Eve.

In Conclusion

No apologies. I did what I had to with the level of experience I had, the lack of community, and a high needs child. He is now big, strong, healthy, beautiful, smart… I know I did the right thing.

It wasn’t easy, for sure, but it made me stronger. It showed me that I can stand up for myself when it matters, that I can fight for what is right, that I’m a strong mother who can take care of her child and help him blossom into a beautiful, loving human being while battling the world.

I have gained so much self confidence, and so much respect for myself. My child is raising me as much as I am raising him, perhaps more.


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About joanna

About Joanna Steven is an Amazon best-selling author, an attachment parenting mom to 2 boys, and a lover of food. Her mission is to inspire mothers and make their life easier so they feel nurtured, nourished, and better able to raise children in a peaceful way. She regularly updates her blog with delicious, wholesome recipes, and lifestyle tips for moms seeking to live motherhood to the fullest.

10 comments on “High Needs Babies – My Experience Raising a High Needs Toddler (10-18 months)

    • So glad this was there for you when you needed it. 🙂
      Weaning off nursing to sleep did not happen until my son was 3 years old. Basically I told him we’d nurse for naps but not night anymore, but I’d cuddle him to sleep (although half the time he actually needed to be alone to fall asleep — so I’d tell him that I had to brush my teeth etc and I’d be back to kiss him). Once that was done, we stopped nursing for naps. This was a bit harder. I would tell him he could either nap with me, or play on his own while I napped (I was pregnant). What really helped a lot was having daddy do the bedtime routine! Since he doesn’t have boobs… 🙂

  1. @LaurenK all I want to do is go back in time. I wish I hadn’t breastfed. Now all my lo will do is nurse to sleep. I’m exhausted. I’m done. It’s too much. I do not believe there is a light at the end of this.

    • Do not regret it. You did the absolute best for your child. I know children who didn’t breastfeed and are still terrible sleepers who wake several time at night into toddlerhood.

      There are gentle ways to sleep train if you’re losing it! Look up the Jay Gordon sleep training method.

      And take care of yourself during the day! If you’re not a single mom, your husband must take his child during the day so you get alone time! You’re a mom, not a slave to your family, and you can breastfeed AND not be constantly needed. Hugs <3

  2. Hi joanna.. I just want to hug you. Because you described about high need baby perfectly. At least, it described my experiences in raising a ‘almost-never-sleep’ baby/toddler about 5 years ago. It was like no one could understand how was my feelings and my panda eyes in the morning. I feel guilty, inadequate and that feelings grow bigger when I saw ‘perfect baby’. Is there something wrong with my parenting ways?
    Now I know that I’m not alone. It’s not my fault having a high needs child. I’m very happy and proud that I’ve been doing my best for my first son Gaza.

    Thank you for making me feel being understood.

    Sorry if my English is not good. Hopefully you can understand it.

    Warm regards,
    Pritha Khalida-Indonesia

    • Thank you so much for commenting! I’m glad my post brought you joy. My son is also 5 now and he’s the sweetest, most loving boy ever. I’m glad I followed my heart!

  3. Oh My … are you my twin? lol .. This is my life at the moment. She is 13 months old. Since the day she was born every single nap , every time she sleep at night I was there. I’m still there. I can’t sleep train her. I can’t listen to her crying. It’s intense. She is smart beyond her age. I’m beyond exhausted and so does my husband. We love her so much and I can’t ask for a better daughter. Thank you for this article. I feel less lonely now.

  4. It’s just unbelievable,after so many months of wondering what the hell (pardon my language please) I was doing wrong I found the answer.i was doing everything well except I didn’t have a clue I am a mother of a high need toddler. You described everything so perfectly with so many details and I feel much better now knowing that there are many mothers like me who struggle with their babies. I will definitely have to read a bit more about a high need children so I could meet all my daughter’ needs . Thank you so much Joanna for sharing with your experiences ,ideas and giving me some hope for a better tomorrow.Many hugs
    Monica T.

  5. I so needed to read this right at this moment, I’m so exhausted, I’m so frustrated and my husband is suffering from clinical depression so I just feel like things never get easier since my son was born. I love him but I wondered for a moment if it would have been different had I practice more conventional parenting…or to have a baby who would chill in a crib even for two seconds! But it’s good to know I’m not the only one of course, even though it feels like it. It’s so hard feeling constantly judged for “making your bed” by others and even other moms, but the really really just can’t understand. Keep doing what you do Joanna! Xo

    • Oh I remember the feeling… My children are now 4 and 8 and so loving and cuddly. Of course it might have been the same with conventional parenting, who knows… But I followed my heart. I think it’s really important that your husband gets his depression treated though! Big hugs to you and please email me anytime you want to chat or vent! ❤

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