Your 'high needs' baby

Your grandmother, or even your mother, may scoff at the term “high-needs baby.”

We didn’t pseudo-diagnose our children. Babies were babies. We didn’t overthink it. And we played outside and drank Kool-Aid and ate mud pies and lived in houses with lead paint and were better and tougher and poorer and smarter, etc. etc. etc.

Listen. The truth of the matter is, your baby might feel high needs to YOU, and in reality, some babies really are more intense.

The signs

Here are some signs your baby might be high needs or highly sensitive:

  • Unpredictable schedule and patterns. Even when you try to nap him at 10 and 2 consistently, he has his own ideas.
  • Sleeps restlessly and wakes easily. May be fussy about how loud the house is — or how quiet! Babies might prefer to snooze to a white noise machine, the hum of the fan or the dishwasher. Or they may wake to the slightest sound.
  • Constantly craves attachment. Baby NEVER wants to be put down!
  • Doesn’t like to be passed around. The same baby that wants to be held all the time might not be cool with being held by just anyone. Mom, please.
  • Easily over-stimulated. Cries to loud noises, melts down and can’t settle after dinner out at a busy restaurant.
  • Described by others as fussy, needy, intense, difficult, demanding. All of this might be true. But this is your baby, and hearing your deepest, darkest thoughts from the mouths of others can make parenting a high-needs baby particularly overwhelming.

A grain of salt

In a way, Grandma is right — all of these characteristics basically describe a typical baby and a baby’s basic needs. All babies prefer their parents, become over-stimulated, can be unpredictable, have a hard time self-soothing and would prefer to be held.

The true high-needs baby, however, takes all of these tendencies to the next level. Her cries are piercing. She’s quick to react. She barely gives the caregiver a moment’s rest. You would never describe her as mellow or easygoing.

But you know what? That’s OK. This isn’t some old-fashioned “good baby” or “bad baby” label. This is YOUR baby. Just like there are intense adults, there are intense babies. It’s just who they are — and the people who love them need to learn how to interact with them.

What to do

Here’s how to care for your high-needs baby:

  • Look on the bright side. You know what your baby wants, because she tells you. You can appreciate her strong, assertive personality.
  • Go with the flow. Be flexible. Be ready to leave the restaurant. Drive around the block an extra time or two to extend the nap.
  • Set yourself up for success. You’ll hear grownups say, “Nothing good happens after the third glass of wine,” or “Nothing good happens after 3 a.m.” Your high-needs parent version of this might be, “We’ll have hell to pay if we start the bedtime routine after 9 p.m.” This won’t be your life forever, so do what works.
  • Babywear like crazy. Invest in every comfy, awesome sling, wrap or carrier. Baby doesn’t want to be put down? You can still have a life with the right equipment!
  • Let yourself feel it. I’m taking about the frustration, exhaustion, resentment and even the awe you might feel toward the babies who sleep 20 hours per day and wake up giggling (to their smug parents).
  • Take breaks, take turns. Feeling your frustration and rage can be healthy — but expressing it fully with babe-in-arms, not so much. Reaching your wits’ end and a state of total depletion is a real risk.

When to worry

If your baby seems pained or truly inconsolable, check in with your doctor to rule out any medical problems. Trust your gut on this. Moms and dads usually know when something’s really wrong.


Jen Wittes is a certified postpartum doula and writer who now works in marketing and communications. She lives in St. Paul with her two kids, her two cats and her husband. Send questions or comments to jwittes@mnparent.com.