Short version: When a baby appears needier than others, it may be that they are a ‘highly sensitive person’ (HSP), which can have many benefits in later life. It can mean that as a parent your role is to protect your little one from being easily overstimulated and as they grow older help them to explore new situations from a place of safety. Living with highly sensitive babies can feel exhausting and make you wonder if you did something wrong, so this article explores some ways to do this and hopefully gives a sense that your instinctive way to react is exactly right. Most of all you need to know you are not alone.
You may not label your baby as needy, but perhaps other have. Does your baby seem to need more cuddles? Not sleep well, either in the day or at night (or exhaustingly during neither)? Does s/he appear to cry more than others in your mama circle? What about pumping and flexing their limbs vigorously or arching their backs as if trying to get away from something? Even if not, I ask you to read on for those that do have a baby like this so you can support them through the first difficult year. My first daughter was like this, and having felt like a zombie for the first 11 months and felt at times so overwhelmed, I empathise deeply with the mums going through this who come to my Mother & Baby Yoga classes.
You may not have come across the term ‘highly sensitive person’ (HSP), but there is increasing research about this trait both in adults and children (and animals). Elaine Aron was a pioneer in writing about this trait (and I thoroughly recommend her book), which is estimated to affect 20% of the population, equally amongst males and females. That means that out of your meet up with nine other mamas, potentially two of you and two of your babies could be highly sensitive. It is most likely inherited from one or both parents, or may be enhanced through circumstance, such as being born prematurely.
What is meant by highly sensitive? It might be that you, or your baby, are sensitive to noise or too many people in a room, or that you pick up on everyone’s emotion and are so busy digesting what you are feeling that you are tired afterwards. Essentially, an HSP is more easily aroused by anything around them, especially new stimulation, and their nervous system is likely to be overloaded more quickly.
Being highly sensitive can have both drawbacks and benefits. Some HSPs may be labelled “shy”, “introverted”, “slow to get going”, a “cry baby”, but often what is happening is that they are deeply processing what is going on and more likely to feel overwhelmed. (Boy, did I get so fed up of being told I was shy as a child when I really felt I wasn’t, I was just thinking about things before I was ready to speak.) The positives include that they can be extremely creative, good leaders because they understand what others are feeling, empathetic, and deep thinkers.
You might recognise some of this for yourself, or for someone you know, but what does it mean for a baby? If you imagine in the first weeks of life outside the womb, a baby is in a totally new environment. If you are genetically programmed as highly sensitive this can be an even more intense experience. Since you cannot talk to your parents, you can only express any overwhelm through ‘negative’ expressions such as increased crying, irritability or discomfort.
Newborns cannot distinguish between sensations from inside the body and those outside. So a feeling of hunger could be experienced as a pain or unknown danger. Elaine Aron uses the analogy of a storm brewing where the newborn is taken out on a trip. Just imagine your baby starts to feel a sensation building and intensifying (hunger), then noise from the people outside the pram is added, bumping over the curb is added, the jiggling of the pram toy over their eyes, the glinting of the sun, a siren, an uncomfortable fold of coat under the back, a child pulling your hand….. it all becomes too much and the overstimulated and overtired baby cannot be soothed by any means.
As your child gets older, the reaction may change, partly depending on the parents’ reactions. By two months old the behavioural-activation system is functional so if you highly sensitive baby with high activation you’ll have an easily angered baby, but if you have highly sensitive with low activation you may appear to have a placid and ‘good’ baby at this age, but they may be withdrawing as a way of protecting themselves from overstimulation.
At six months old, the automatic ‘pause-to-check system’ comes online. Your child will be able to feel fear if past upsetting experiences matches what is happening currently. This may make him more hesitant about new situations, but if the parent can provide a buffer (e.g. limiting the time with this new stimulation, ready with a big familiar hug, ready to leave early) your child will be able to find ways to work with their enhanced pause-to-check system. If a sensitive child is constantly pushed beyond their capacity, it may be that the system becomes too dominant and it leads to pause-to-do-nothing-new reaction and your child appears withdrawn.
By ten months, a child has the ability to decide how to experience something or to stop a behaviour, for example, to override caution to join in with something (e.g. banging an instrument at noisy rhymetime). This is helped by social support, that is, your child has learnt to imitate what others have done to manage their sensitivity. Those with sensitive boys may need to work extra hard at this because our culture expects boys not to be ‘cry babies’, to ‘fight your own fight’, to ‘man up’ etc – you get the picture. By the time of pre-school and particularly starting school, a parent may feel under pressure to get their child ‘school ready’ and worry that they have been overprotective. I think that if 20% of a class are highly sensitive we need to be having conversations with staff to make them aware of this trait and how to support those children (purely not labelling them as shy would be a big support).
Unfortunately, when you have a so called ‘needy’ baby you are likely to get all sorts of unsolicited advice about “not making a rod to break your back” (whether it’s cuddling or feeding them to sleep), “leaving my baby to cry never did my child any harm” etc etc. The research shows that if we can be aware of this potential for overstimulation and provide a buffer, the baby will grow into a child and then an adult who can do this for themselves and enjoy the gifts of being highly sensitive. If, however, we push babies and children to withdraw themselves in order to protect themselves from overstimulation, they may at best appear introverted and at the worst be set up for a lifetime of not feeling that they fit in or that there is something wrong with them, perhaps leading to anxiety and depression. (Obviously, this is an oversimplification since there are so many environmental and social factors affecting the adult that they will become.)
So what if you think your baby or child could be highly sensitive? Attachment parenting makes sense because you are keeping your infant close, where they can feel safe with what is familiar to them. As they grow, you provide the safety from which to explore without becoming overstimulated. Perhaps you know half an hour at rhymetime is enough stimulation for your baby and you leave slightly early, or as they get older stay only an hour at soft play with quiet time afterwards, or a big encompassing hug if it all starts to get too much. The basic need is that your infant is held and protected from overstimulation.
Practical suggestions would be:
*baby wearing (following the TICKS rule for safety)
*learning what is overstimulating for your specific child
*limiting stimulating environments (or at least new stimulating environments) without being overprotecting
*walking in nature
*recognising the overstimulation cues for your baby (e.g. breaking eye contact after holding it)
*talking in a low, soothing voice with familiar phrases or singing familiar lullabies
*explaining to others that more stimulation (jiggling your baby around) will not ‘cheer’ her up
*if a baby won’t sleep, staying with them in a darkened room with less stimulation and resting yourself! (NB. often sensitive children find theatres and cinemas overwhelming places)
*use blankets to cover the crib (making sure that they are safely secured) to cut out stimulation
*co-sleep so they have your physical presence (see ISIS online for co-sleeping research and guidance)
*breastfeeding to sleep (NB it is not safe to leave a sleepy baby alone with a bottle)
You may well have done those things instinctively, but the important thing is not to feel that you are pandering to your baby’s needs or that you have caused the sensitivity by doing something wrong: you are responding in a nurturing and appropriate way. However, this extra care can be tiring, so what is also important is how you look after yourself when caring for a sensitive child, especially if you realise you are highly sensitive too. I soon learnt not to pack too much into a day. One activity (visiting a friend OR going food shopping OR attending a playgroup) meant that we both did not get overstimulated (me by a fractious baby!).
With a subsequent child, this can be harder to manage because you have their schedule to work around too. It is totally ok to not attend a planned event if you have had an exhausting night – catching up on sleep is a priority if you are to be able to protect your infant from overstimulation. Find a buddy that has a similar experience with their child so you know there is someone just a text away who can truly empathise. If you don’t have family at hand who can lend support, perhaps think about finding someone nurturing and trusted who can become a regular babysitter. Maybe once a week they come to your home where your baby is in familiar surroundings so you can do something to nurture yourself – attend a yoga class, go for a walk in nature, or simply a quiet tea in a café while you breathe out slowly. (Perhaps you can do this with your buddy – looking after your two six month olds one week, and having your turn to care for yourself the next week.)
Be reassured that as your child grows, a sound and nurturing home environment encourages your little person to express their sensitivity and the more difficult aspects of their personality as they learn to manage them, but this will be rewarded with a deeply thinking child who will surprise you at every turn. Of course, we need a mixture of people in a family so those that are not highly sensitive provide important stability and other qualities to be cherished. Using Compassionate Communication (or Non-Violent Communication) can help different types of personalities understand each other, but that’s another blog…
Other suggestions if you are highly sensitive or are parting a highly sensitive child
Treat yourself to a subscription to Juno magazine, where there are lots of parents using a gentle approach and feel that you are part of a wonderful community.
Join an Attachment Parenting group on Facebook and/or attend local meetings
Watch the film Sensitive: An Untold Story
Read Elaine Aron’s books e.g. The Highly Sensitive Person (also available as an audiobook for while you’re feeding your baby!)