High Needs Children – Challenges and Growth Opportunities of Raising a High Needs Child

This blog post is dedicated to all the mothers of high needs children, a label which will be discussed below. This topic also relates to healthy diets, in that moms may get an added incentive to eating well just so they can keep up with their little bundles of energy! Please note that I am not criticizing any parenting method – we should all do what works for us and makes our children as happy as possible regardless of what society thinks.

Raising children is hard – some might say it’s the toughest job in the world. But, high needs infants and children bring additional challenges, and fortunately, additional rewards as well. High needs infants usually stay high needs throughout their childhood. I looked forward to interacting with high needs toddler Franklin when he was smaller, and watching him blossom into a passionate person. Seeing him today as a strong, confident almost 4 year old child has been one of the most rewarding things ever. However, things were not always easy.

Franklin’s Early Months

After Franklin was born, I often felt completely inadequate. Everyone I talked to, even parents of previously colicky infants, said that at least they had naps to relax. 2-3 hour naps, every afternoon. While other kids, regardless of usual temperament, slept for at least a couple of hours every day, Franklin did not. He detested sleep, or rather, he loved being awake so much that as soon as he has had a little bit of rest, he would wake up and within seconds would be upright, playing. Parents come to me for nutrition advice for their little ones, and that’s an area where I am very knowledgeable. Franklin is growing strong, happy and healthy, and it is not an accident. But when it came to keeping him asleep, everything I had learned was useless for the first few months.

I was told many things.

– He is not tired enough, let him exhaust himself (but the more exhausted he was, the more he would wake up)

– He does not need to sleep because he eats so well (but tired signs such as rubbing eyes, yawning, excessive fussing and clingliness indicated he was indeed tired)

– He should cry it out (I don’t think that punishing my child for society’s shortcomings is the answer – more on that below. Note that my position on Cry It Out is an opinion, not a criticism. He who has never sinned…).

In the end, nothing helped. I even lost friends because they could not empathize with my level of stress and exhaustion. I was clueless and wondering where I had gone wrong. And then, I found Dr Sears’ information on high need children, and read his book, The Fussy Baby Book: Parenting Your High-Need Child From Birth to Age Five. It was like I was suddenly validated, vindicated. I was/am a good mother, and was/am doing everything right. Dr Sears was blessed with a high need child after having 3 boys, who made him wonder was the big deal about kids was because they were so easy. I myself was an easy baby, who quickly slept through the night and would fall asleep while playing if I felt I needed a snooze. Franklin was never like that, and I understood it, I understood him, and did was I needed to do.

Meeting Franklin’s needs

When he was born and he needed constant soothing at the breast, I breastfed him. I breastfed him until my nipples were sore. I ignored advice on delaying feedings. I ignored opinions that he was hungry and my milk was not enough. He needed to suck for comfort, and he did. When my milk supply was over-abundant and he would be distressed from the milk flow which he did not want (he just wanted to suck), I threw my belief that pacifiers were useless out the window and gave him one. What he needed came before dogma.

When he needed to sleep, I would bounce and rock him, on my feet, for hours. I would not let him cry, both for his sake and mine (when he slept and I tried to do the same, I would hear his cries inside my head). I wanted him to know I was there for him, through thick and thin, until death do us part. My joints were aching from fatigue, my arms were ready to fall off, I had sciatica-like pain from keeping him on me in a rocking chair in an uncomfortable position (the one he liked) so he would sleep longer.

What was wrong? Nothing. Franklin was a high needs baby. For more details on high need babies, please see this post by Dr Sears. These precious babes often are intense, hyperactive, draining, demanding, they feed often and wake up often, they are unsatisfied, unpredictable, very sensitive, can’t be put down, can’t self soothe and are separation sensitive.

Is there such a thing as high need children?

A friend of mine, Debbie, who writes a great blog entitled Rose Goddess Bliss (check it out!), offered a different perspective. Indeed to her, and to me but in a different way, there are no high need babies.

Many cultures all around the world do not consider babies or children to be difficult or “high needs.” They just fulfill their needs as a matter of course and live a lifestyle conducive to raising children. In Western and European cultures, however, we put children on the back burner to other “more important” things and mothers are not supported and often isolated. So called “high needs” children, I feel, should really be called children who are able to get their “real needs” met in a culture which doesn’t give children the nourishment they require. “High need” children usually like to feed at least once at night, before naps, and frequently throughout the day. This is actually important for brain growth and development. “High need” children love to be held and touched a lot. Here is a quote by Dr. George Wootan on how important this is…

“The increased opportunity for parent-child bonding offered by breastfeeding is a widely known benefit of nursing, which brings up an interesting sidelight. A baby can have lots of brain cells, but they won’t do any good unless they’re inter-connected. The nerve fibers that connect these cells are called dendrites. And what develops dendrites? You probably said breast milk … right? Wrong! Touching develops dendrites. Holding, touching, and stroking a baby, as a mother naturally does while nursing (‘you can prop a bottle but not a breast’), helps the child develop the way nature intended, both physically and emotionally”

Car seats are unnatural and restrictive to a baby’s movements, so of course a baby who is committed to thrive and develop will protest. For a baby, there is only the present moment. And in the present moment he/she is being held hostage and kept away from his mother. His life supplier. It is only when a baby gets a better sense of time (“I am here now but that doesn’t mean I will be here in 5 minutes”), will he/she be more calm in the car seat.

I once read of a study done by Dutch researcher Marten de Vries. He followed a set of Masai infants in Kenya during a period of great drought in the 1970’s. He labeled 10 of them “difficult” and 10 of them “easy.” When he returned, 3 months later, he looked for those 20 babies and found only 13 (some of them had moved away I guess). Most of these babies were malnourished. 3 months after that, 7 of the 13 babies were dead, and only one of those seven was a baby he had classified as “difficult.” So, next time you get frustrated with your demanding child, remember, he/she is just a genetically stronger baby who is geared to receiving all he/she needs to thrive!
I looked up the study for clarification – the Masai tribe had been under difficult conditions of drought. In the end, the overwhelming majority of surviving babies were the high need babies. His conclusion was that “Difficult babies in Western cultures are better able to survive harsh conditions in Third World cultures.”

I agree with Debbie that children would have nearly all of their needs met in a so-called primitive society. Cared for like they should be, infants are content and do not need to fuss or cry. There is no reason for it. Indeed, in the book The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp, the author argues that colic does not exist in these societies. Children are constantly carried against their mothers, breastfed on demand, and mothers do not burn out because they have wonderful support systems to lend them a hand. I like to imagine those communities making food together, so that the busy mothers can tend to their children. They would probably be surprised to see that a US block of houses is made of people who barely interact, and who cook separately or eat out of plastic boxes warmed in a microwave by a tired mother who only has her husband to help out (if she does at all).

Harvey Karp recommends techniques to soothe a fussy or colicky baby, techniques like tight swaddling, rocking, the 5 S’s, carrying in a sling etc. We tried those, and they worked well, but swaddling only went so far, my arms were exhausted from all the rocking, and I could not leave the house with him in a sling because it was -20 degrees outside, and walking around the house alone to soothe him was exhausting emotionally and physically. Maybe there would have been a way, after all the Native Americans living in Iowa did it, but I could not figure it out.

Does this all mean that high need children do not exist? This is where I disagree. They do exist in our society, as a by-product of this society, and acknowledging their existence makes mothers like me feel that they are indeed experiencing legitimate issues which most parents do not experience, and studies done on such babies offer solutions. High need infants may be the product of our unnatural society, but they exist, just like the 10% or parents blessed with a colicky infants know that their child’s colic is real and not their fault.

The high need infant grows up

What are the lessons here? High need infants are a blessing. I have grown more in 9 months than I could have in years. I learned that my instinct, which I believed to be dull, was strong and beautiful. I knew what my baby needed, and instinctively followed attachment parenting principles. I knew that I was not spoiling him by following his cues, and that I was only making him more confident.

At 9 months, and happily explored the house and the public library with passion and interest. He only needed my arms when he was bored (which could happen easily as he required more entertainment than the low need child who plays by himself early on, like I did), but he was quite the explorer otherwise.

While he needed me and my breast a lot early on, he became a people pleaser who is also extremely charismatic. Random people would make a bee line for him to get a smile (which he always gave them) and to hold him (which he always let them do).

Except for the breast, he was no longer dependent on what he used to rely on to soothe himself. He needed to be swaddled. Not anymore. He needed a pacifier. Not anymore. He needed rocking. Not anymore. This reinforced my belief that if he needs something now, it’s for a reason and he won’t need it forever. I am not spoiling him, I’m giving him what he needs so he can move forward.

Of course, he remained high needs for another year after that. He never enjoyed objects, and preferred to play with people and animals. He was never content to sit still for a while or be rocked in a swing, he was always on the go, crawling, grabbing, etc. He would wake up 5 times a night, and would fight every nap. When he did nap, it was for 20 minutes unless I sat by him to soothe him back to sleep a couple of times, but naps rarely exceed one hour. Even cars and strollers couldn’t get him to sleep for more than 30 minutes.

Sneak peak for moms of high needs infants: At 3, Franklin was falling asleep by himself, was weaned off the breast (I got pregnant, which was definitely a factor,) played by himself a lot (activities involving water were always good) etc.

In the end, I would not have traded him for any other child. He laughs louder than anyone I know. He potty trained himself. He opened my eyes to marvels I had grown accustomed to and therefore ignored. He taught me that indoor living is nothing compared to being in nature. He taught me to find joy in everything and everyone. When he would see other children, he would laugh and squeal with delight. He is outgoing, sociable and friendly. He explores any place we take him to with joy and curiosity, knowing we are right there if he needs us.

If your little one is high needs, here are some surviving strategies that helped a lot:

– Keep your sense of humor. You will need it. Make your husband laugh. Let him make you laugh. High need children will put a strain on your marriage, but if you look at things positively, they will make it stronger too. I love my husband even more now, but we did go through hard times.

Communicate! If you need something, ask for it. If you won’t get it easily, but still need it, ask someone else. Talk to people. Go to La Leche League meetings, or places where you can meet people who understand you.

– Understand that this too shall pass. Your children need all of you for about 3 years. After that, they spread their wings more and more, and the more confident they are, the easier it will be for you. As Dr Sears wrote, no one wishes they had spent less time with their children when they were little.

Eat well! Few things are harder on you than hard to digest food.

Get help. There’s no shame in asking people to help out! That’s how it’s supposed to be; you’re not supposed to be alone with a baby. I get a biweekly housekeeper and would give her up for nothing.

– Learn to prioritize, and let go of what isn’t necessary.


Are you tired of being the mom who “does it all?” Do you long for a Village to help you out, listen when things are tough, and cheer for you every step of the way? Bring the Joy Back in Parenting, Nourish Your Soul by Connecting with Other Like-Minded Moms, and Nourish Your Body With Our Expertly Created Meal Plans! Find out more at The Nourished Village – A Nurturing Community for Moms and their Families.

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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.

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