Life With a ‘High Needs’ Baby

We’ve known since Little T was tiny that he is what Dr Sears describes as ‘high needs‘. At 13 months he has never fallen asleep in his own bed or without being rocked. He has extreme energy and a voracious appetite, and while he doesn’t nurse, he does feed for comfort. A LOT. He frequently wants to be picked up and held, but simultaneously demands to be put down and allowed to explore. He hates to be left and is super-sensitive to loud noises. He takes a long time to settle and wakes easily. He needs constant stimulation and is quick to anger and frustration if he’s ever bored. Most recently he’s started crying so fiercely he makes himself gag if we leave him in his cot for two minutes so we can use the toilet.

Some of these behaviours are normal in toddlers of his age, and some aren’t. It’s easy to fall into the trap of pathologising our children so we don’t bear the difficult times on the shoulders of our parenting, but it’s important to be aware that all babies are different and have specific needs. Recognising Little T’s amazing quirks and occasional challenges is crucial for us in understanding our son and nurturing him appropriately.

It helps that he’s such a wonderful little boy. He’s hyper-sensitive, but it manifests in beautiful ways at times; at only ten months old he sat at my feet quietly while I held a friend’s newborn, knowing without being told that Mummy was doing something very important and he needed to be quiet and careful. It melted my heart. And he picks up on the emotions of others, beaming gleefully if I open a romantic text from Big T, or furrowing his brow if I read an upsetting news headline. His sensitivity, though hard work, is a gift to the people around him.

(Hard work it certainly is though. Anyone who’s babysat for us has had the glazed look of someone who’s just run a marathon while being chased by a herd of frightened wildebeest, whether it’s been half an hour or three.)

There are days I wish he was quieter, calmer – easier. I look at other children sweetly playing or falling asleep in cots or beds or slings, or even able to watch a ten minute episode of 64 Zoo Lane without throwing things or pushing over the television, and I wish I had that, even just for a day so I could take a deep breath before diving in to the chaos for another week, or heck, another year. I’m tired of cancelling daytime plans with friends and being unable to attend sling meets because he’ll only nap at home in his car seat while I rock him. I’m tired of being hit and scratched. I’m tired of constantly feeling as though I’m failing as a mother in not meeting his ever changing needs.
Big T gets stressed by it too. After a long day at work he comes home to our hurricane of a 1 year old while I ‘relax’ by making dinner and switching my brain off. The night continues in a blur of toys, books, laughter and tantrums until 9pm when Little T finally sleeps, by which time we’re too exhausted to exchange so much as a, ‘how was your day?’ 

We’ve seen some people make the decision to start trying to conceive another baby when their eldest gets to Little T’s age, sometimes earlier, but we know in our hearts that we can’t do that. Not yet, not while we’re stretched so thin. I couldn’t manage a pregnancy on top of the physical demands of being a stay at home parent, and I wouldn’t be able to give Little T the attention he needs with a newborn to care for too. It wouldn’t be fair to either child.

And ultimately, he does need the attention. Life for him is a storm of emotions and new experiences, some of which he finds more intense than other children might, and it’s our job as parents to support him and help him feel secure while he navigates his way through it. What that means is being responsive, respectful, and above all empathetic.

P1060259Beyond it all though – the sleep deprivation, the isolation and complete absence of time for ourselves or each other – we wouldn’t change a thing. Every day with our son is like being in a surreal but wonderful theatre, watching this little person grow and evolve on stage, being part of every ear splitting drama and each shining victory. He is giving us the beautiful gift of his every thought and discovery, however he articulates it at this precious age, and it’s magical. I’ve started signing with him more regularly, and at the moment we’re learning ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ as I’m convinced being able to communicate will ease his frustration, and mine. His favourite sign at the moment is ‘sleep’ which he does by moving my hands into place rather than his own, and it’s so soul-achingly adorable that I almost hope he keeps doing it that way indefinitely.

So what is life like with a high needs baby? The short answer is that it’s hard, but in the way going to the gym and pounding the treadmill for three hours is hard; it’s tough and it hurts, but it invigorates and motivates you like nothing else.

Now where’s the coffee…

Ten Things I Learned in 2014

1. Having children changes your life.
No crap, Columbo! Unfortunately this is a realisation that new parents have to find out for themselves. It’s not like adults never experience change before having kids; we spend the first 18 or so years of our lives in a state of constant flux so it’s easy to believe another life change will be easy to digest. But the thing that makes having a baby different is just how drastic and horrendously sudden the change is. You’d think 9 months of preparation would be ample, but it’s not. Pregnancy is its own whirlwind of issues, fears and adjustment, and then POW, you’re a parent and nothing is ever the same again. EVER. There’s nothing else like that in life.

2. I’m actually kind of a tree-hugging hippy.
Cloth nappies, cloth sanitary towels, cloth kitchen roll, cloth baby wipes, cloth everything. I even make my own nappy cream (not to keep my baby away from ALL DA CHEMICALZ as you might imagine, but because I was tired of my hands being sticky with Bepanthen). I try my hardest to buy second hand clothes and we recycle religiously. I carry my son on my back like a baby chimpanzee and explore all kinds of outdoorsy places I never thought of as very ‘me’ and it turns out I quite like our planet – it’s pretty – and I’ve grown to be unattractively preachy about climate change and overconsumption of natural resources (sorrynotsorry). Big T and I have become passionate about eco issues since having Little T, so much so that it’s looking likely that our future plans will be led by our need to be more proactive in that area (cryptic or what?).

3. …You can be a tree-hugging hippy without abandoning science and logic.
I vaccinate my child because science. I know that his amber necklace doesn’t have magical healing properties, it just looks cute, and while I understand that breastmilk is awesome I’m fairly certain it can’t cure the common cold. And yes, coconut oil is a wonderful moisturiser and I use it on myself and my son but it isn’t magical juice squeezed from fresh unicorns and if you use it to treat serious conditions you’re a few clowns short of a circus.

4. It’s possible to get so used to handling human waste that it becomes second nature.
I honestly didn’t see that one coming. When Little T was tiny he’d regularly explode all over me, himself and any toys or valuables in the vicinity and I’d have to stop for a second with him on the changing mat just to work out the logistics of how in holy hell I was going to clean him up without marinating his bedroom in poo. The cut off for me would be if he managed to get it in his hair, then his clothes would go straight in the bin, he’d go in the bath, and wine/coffee would go in my face. These days I hardly remember when his last nappy change was, or how well contained it was, what colour, what size. It’s blissfully and seamlessly blended into the fabric of my day. Yay.

5. The time you try to wrap your baby in a busy place will be the time he decides to scream like a goat on fire.
It’s happened to my friends and it’s happened to me, and it’s a horrible feeling. All eyes are on you, particularly if you’re attempting a back carry, and you’re not sure whether the attention is positive or negative. Conversations get quieter while your child gets louder and then you’re certain that the muted hum in the room is laced with disapproval. You can’t give up though, not with a baby to get home and the reputation of babywearing on your shoulders, so you struggle through, all the while wishing the ground would swallow you whole, your shrieking gremlin too. You make it outside, red faced and sweaty, and of course as soon as you’re out of the public gaze your little one calms down, smiles sweetly and falls asleep.

6. It’s okay to ask for help.
Two days after we were discharged from hospital following Little T’s birth my mum came across to lend a hand, and I just could not deal. Not because she’s my mother and she drives me nuts (though that is true), but because I never, ever ask for help. It’s not a matter of principle, it’s a matter of survival – having gone through some difficult times in the past I’ve taken comfort in being self-reliant. It makes me feel safe knowing that I don’t need anyone but myself. I’ve needed to feel that way. But back in January my mum looked after us and we couldn’t have managed without her, literally. I’d just had a rough induction followed by a c-section, my recovery was slow, and my PND was looming. I cried non-stop for days. Big T was sleep deprived and shell shocked from the difficult birth, not to mention at sea with the sudden onset of my depression. Little T himself was struggling to feed properly and quickly losing weight. When my mum walked through the door we threw ourselves at her, a mess of tears and exhaustion, and I felt incredibly uncomfortable with it. It was a valuable lesson though, because now I don’t struggle if I don’t have to. I pick up the phone and I speak to someone who might be able to help and if they can, fabulous, and if not we find another way. Raising a baby while living so far away from family is hard enough without further isolating ourselves, needlessly at that.

7. The friends I have are for life.
I think a lot of new parents find out who their real friends are during their baby’s first year, especially if they’re the first to do the whole reproduction thing. Suddenly I wasn’t as present as I’d been before, I didn’t always reply to texts or remember important dates. And being me, when the PND struck and my mental health deteriorated I cut myself off so I could focus on my family, which was the right decision for me but made me a colossally shit friend. I haven’t been the easiest person to love and stick by, but a precious few have done just that. In some cases they’re the people I always knew would be there, but others have surprised me with their empathy and understanding. It’s a humbling thing to have people like that in my life, people who are for me and on my side. And Little T has the best honorary aunts and uncles in the universe. ❤

8. My parents are a bit awesome.
I’m a big believer in loving and appreciating the person rather than the familial job title so throughout my adult life I’ve tried to cultivate a healthy and close bond to both my parents as friends and people. In the main I think I’ve been successful. I can talk to them about everything from politics to celebrity gossip to sex to Chaucer. They’re good and kind. They’re also both a little bit nuts and regularly make me pull my hair out.
As parents though I never really gave them much credit. Not to say I dismissed them; I just didn’t think about it. Until I became a parent myself that is, and then came a startling revelation that they must’ve done all this too. They must’ve held and wiped and shushed and fed, and saw their old life spiralling away from them (although the special effects weren’t as good then). I see in Little T the security I once felt myself, the belief that everything will be fine because Mummy and Daddy will fix it, and it’s like I’ve only just realised that they must’ve been as terrified and clueless as we are now, and they got through it and raised me to be the woman I hope they’re proud of. They’ve been a huge support to us, and watching them with Little T is an unparalleled joy; it’s like looking into the past and catching a glimpse of the relationship I had with them but will never remember.

9. Wealth is relative.
We are less well off than we’ve ever been. We live month to month, limiting our petrol consumption, eating bizarre cheap concoctions just prior to pay day (I reckon I could be the next Jack Monroe), and mending things ourselves rather than paying anyone else, even if it’s frightening and involves electricity. The £6 a month we pay for a window cleaner is a luxury. I cut my own hair and my broken phone will stay broken for the unforeseeable. The amount of money in my account needs to be checked before we can even pay for a necessary medical prescription. It’s a constant juggling act and it’s hard.
Except that I’ve never felt so blessed, and I don’t just mean in a sentimental ‘I have all I’ll ever need as long as I have my familyyyyy’ kind of way; I actually feel content with our situation and proud of what we’re doing. Being a stay at home parent is hard work for me, and working full-time and bearing the weight of our family’s financial security is tough on Big T, but we do it because we believe in it. Money is part of that, and so how our money is spent represents the proud decisions that we’ve made together. If we buy a nice sling or lunch out it’s because we’ve worked hard to be able to afford it, and often done without in other areas. And that’s okay! I enjoy it, every second of it, because it’s ours and we’re in this together and it’s worth it completely. I feel wealthy because there’s nothing in the world I need that I don’t have, and that’s an amazing place to be.

10. It’s possible to love someone so much you think it might swallow you up.
Last night my son fell asleep in my arms, dried milk in his curls, snot blocking his nose, his dummy dangling from his mouth like a fat cigar, and I honestly couldn’t have thought he was more beautiful. He kissed me earlier, a big sloppy open-mouthed chomp that tasted like satsumas. He’s amazing, and it makes me ache how fiercely I love him, how I can’t squeeze him as hard as I want to, and that one day he won’t need me anymore. The love I feel for my little boy is explosive, frightening and it threatens to spill over at any time. It makes me scared and brave and proud and confident and elated and tired and peaceful and angry with the world, all at the same time.
Being a mother is the heaviest, most wonderful burden there is.
I treasure every precious second of it.

Happy new year, dear readers.
Thank you for your loyalty and support while I’ve got this blog off the ground. May 2015 be a spectacular one for all of you. ❤