Are we being misled by the labelling of ‘High Needs’ babies when they just need sleep?

Are we being misled by the widespread labelling of “high needs” and “fussy” babies, when really these babies just need sleep?

Harry is our second child. He is now three years old and he is sweet, caring, shy at times yet loud and cheeky when he wants to be too. When Harry was around 12 weeks old, I was told Harry was a “High-Needs” (HN) baby and that was the reason why he was so unsettled and had been since birth. I was told that was his temperament, that’s just who he was, and we needed to get used to that. At the time, I felt good about this diagnosis. It gave me answers and a reason to why he was the most unsettled baby I had ever come across. It made absolute sense because he was certainly intense, he cried more, he demanded more, he fit the picture. It made it all seem ok and it made it seem somewhat normal. “Why does harry scream for hours on end?”. Because he is a HN baby. “Why does Harry take forever to go to sleep?”. Because he is a HN baby. “Why am I struggling and at my wits end?”. Because I have a “high-needs” baby.

For the first 4 months of his life, Harry was a nightmare and he didn’t sleep nearly as much as he should have. Once he got to sleep, he slept quite well but getting him down was hard, really hard. He would scream for hours. One night he screamed on and off from 10pm until 6am in the morning.

I never thought much about the fact that he was missing out on so much sleep. I think that was because he was crying so much and dealing with his crying took up all my time and energy. I searched high and low for answers to explaining why he was just so miserable. I got everything thrown at me, along with this diagnosis of his HN temperament. Now, three years on and knowing what I know as a Baby Sleep Consultant, I don’t believe any of what I was told was true.

High Needs babies didn’t really exist years ago, yet these days, every second baby is being labelled as one. Now, I must highlight that I am talking about otherwise healthy babies here, with no underlying medical conditions. Babies who have been diagnosed with genuine medical conditions, who require ongoing medical treatment and intervention, are different and yes, those babies indeed have different needs. But that’s not what I am talking about here.

high needs babies

Today, you will find books, websites, Facebook Support Groups solely dedicated to parents of HN babies. Parents with HN babies connect with other parents who have HN babies, looking for support and reassurance that what they are going through is normal. Because they are all told that it is normal, they continue, making exceptions and caring differently for their HN baby.

According to the information out there, HN babies have different sleep needs to other babies. It is believed they don’t need or want as much sleep as other babies. They aren’t routine babies, they have difficulty getting into a pattern of sleeping, they can’t self soothe, they don’t like to be confined in a cot and they are needy and require attention, day and night. Because of this information, parents then change the way they care for and meet their baby’s basic needs. They might hold them and rock them more, they might feed them more, they might keep them up for longer and they might stimulate them more. Because that is what they are told to do by other parents who have now become “experts” in the field of HN or fussy babies. Whilst well-meaning parents think they are helping and doing the right thing for their baby, they are not meeting their basic needs, especially their need to sleep and because of this, they are then helping to create this HN / fussy behavior in the first place. An overtired and exhausted baby will have difficulty settling, they will have fragmented sleep, they will be demanding, they will scream. This then validates the HN diagnosis and the cycle of sleep deprivation creating high needs behavior continues.

Babies do have different temperaments however a baby’s temperament has nothing to do with the amount of sleep they need. All babies of a similar age need a similar amount of sleep. There is no such thing as a baby who doesn’t need or want much sleep. Most of the families I work with tell me they have a “high needs” baby before we start working together. After we finish, it is very evident their baby was simply exhausted and never “high needs” in the first place and the terms we are hearing more and more, is never mentioned again.

When I look back at that awful and exhausting time with Harry and now, knowing what I know, I think he was quite simply an OVERTIRED baby and one that desperately needed sleep. He wasn’t a “high needs” baby with an unsettled temperament, who wasn’t sleeping because he had different sleep needs, he was without doubt a baby who was caught in this vicious cycle of sleep deprivation where the lack of sleep was causing the unsettled behaviour and perception of high needs. He wasn’t getting nearly enough the sleep and because of that, he was extremely unsettled. During that time, I became so distracted and misled by the “high needs” label that I went off on a million different tangents trying to understand and learn how to manage with my difficult and challenging “high needs” baby. When the reality was that Harry was quite simply overtired and exhausted.

The vicious cycle we were in only stopped when I figured out he needed more sleep. And guess what, the moment he started sleeping better because I began looking at his basic sleep needs, like making sure when he was awake, he wasn’t wake for too long, making sure he was warm enough when he slept, making sure he had a consistent bedtime and morning wake-up time and so on, his temperament completely changed. He was no longer a “high needs” baby, in fact he never was in the first place. And when he started sleeping better, he became the most relaxed, happy little boy and he still is to this day.

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