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Separation Anxiety and the High Needs Baby….

I wrote recently on Instagram about our struggles with separation anxiety and  coping with a ‘high needs baby’. I was quite amazed by the responses from so many people who had experienced, or were still experiencing, similar issues, even if they didn’t know what they were dealing with at the time. 

For us, the situation arose as we searched for answers in dealing with what we considered our more ‘difficult’ twin. It’s a hard thing to acknowledge, comparisons between your children of any age always feels unfair, even if it is sometimes an informative exercise in helping you understand one, or both, of them better. But still, it was hard to deal with the concept that one of our twins is just simply harder work than the other. But that is the case. Felix is a more uncertain, more worried baby, he cries more, he sleeps less, he needs to be held more, he finds strangers unnerving (not exciting like his twin brother does), he can go from happy to horrible in moments, he needs food more often, cuddles more often, support more often. For weeks, and probably months, we have put it down to teeth or tiredness or colds or coughs, but as the winter finally turned into spring and then nearly summer, it has become clear to us that this is a baby who simply needs a lot from us right now. A short stint on Google brought back the phrase ‘high needs baby’, and added into the mix the issue of the 9-12 month separation anxiety. It was an illuminating search and one that has really helped me understand Felix better. 

And, while I don’t have any of the answers really, I thought I’d share below some of the things I’ve found both interesting and informative, and some that have been comforting or reassuring, in case they can shed some light, or just light relief, on your own situation.

Safe Arms

First up is this lovely piece from Aha Parenting, the home of gentle, thoughtful parenting – this article completely spoke to me at a time when I was feeling really concerned and desperate about Felix, and it was this part that really caught me off-guard and drove the point home about babies who need to be held all the time. “For some babies –  particularly premies, but also full-term babies — this need to be held extends throughout the first year. …Your baby, smart baby that he is, depends on you for his security. He isn’t trying to drive you crazy. He just needs to be in your arms to feel safe in the world. That need is more urgent than anything we can imagine, he really thinks he is about to die when you put him down.” 

Reading it written down in this life or death way made sense to me, and made Felix make more sense to me too. Four weeks premature, and a twin, as well as just being a more sensitive soul, and it’s no surprise that his need for me is probably more acute than it might otherwise be. The article also had this pearl of wisdom to share: “How can you hasten this process? Help him to develop a sense of trust in the world, and help him to learn to self-soothe. How do you do that?Just continue what you’re doing now. Hold him, carry him, soothe him. Minimise the times that you must put him down and leave him. Minimise the number of times he feels insecure, and the amount of stimulation around him. Soothe him when he’s upset. If he needs to cry, fine, but always let him cry in your arms, rather than leaving him alone to cry. Just tell him it’s ok to cry and tell you everything that’s bothering him.” It sounds hard, but nothing with babies is forever, and strangely, the more I meet his needs, the less he has them. He learns to feel safe because I am constantly showing him that he is.

Understanding High Needs

It also really helped to read Dr Sears‘ (who coined the phrase ‘high needs baby’) description of babies like this. It’s quite long, but it’s also incredibly informative and will resonate with many of you. It is also very reassuring and non-judgemental. “Your baby acts the way she does because that’s the way she is. Your baby acts the way she does, not because of your parenting, but because of her personality.” Featuring phrases such as intense, hyperactive, draining – all words I have used in the past – it covers a real spectrum of high needs and carefully lays out how this might manifest itself.

This follow-up article from Dr Sears also provides some really good examples of how high needs looks in older babies and toddlers, and includes some personal advice from his and his wife’s experiences with their own high needs baby. It’s a useful read if you want to understand the ways they adapted their tried and tested parenting techniques to accommodate a child who required a different approach.

Practical Solutions

If you want some really practical solutions for meeting a high needs baby at the peak of their needs, then this really indepth account of one mother’s journey in dealing with her son’s high needs will help. She takes each aspect of high needs, and explains how she dealt with it in real terms. It’s incredibly inspiring. She also makes this very valuable and important point. “The single thing that made life with a  baby with high needs easier….acceptance! Accepting that my baby was different and that he was perfect the way he was. Accepting that his high needs were part of his intense and highly socially-orientated personality. A simple mind-shift from thinking things should be different (which is basically a non-accepting attitude of what is) to simple acceptance made me much more relaxed.”

Acceptance has been a big part of this for us too – merely understanding Felix’s needs and recognising that they are more acute than other babies’, without judgement or recriminations, is incredibly freeing. Seeing him for who he is, and not trying to fight this part of his nature seems to have already made him much easier to manage. And sometimes it’s simple things that make the difference. Working from home and managing my day in small chunks so I can pop downstairs and give a him cuddle at regular intervals has required a shift in the way I work, but has made for a happier baby.

Emotions Are Important

It’s also been really valuable to read this important article on Janet Lansbury’s website – Seven Reasons to Calm Down About Crying. There is a tendency with high needs babies to avoid as much crying as possible, but this can be just as detrimental to their development. Crying is communicating and babies must know that their feelings matter – by their very nature, we must feel our feelings. “An infant’s cries are not only okay, they serve an important purpose. When babies cry, our job is to tune in, provide help, love and support as needed, but not necessarily stop the crying, ” Lansbury says. From citing the healing effects of crying (we all know how good we feel sometimes after a good cry, a release of tension), to explaining how our resistance to deep emotions is what triggers this fear of crying, Lansbury makes a really good case for understanding not only crying, but how our response to it is important.

A good follow up piece to the above is this brave and honest article from one mother, reflecting on the parenting of her now teenage children, and asking questions about her desire to avoid crying at all costs. She says: “What I believe now is that by meeting her every emotional need as an infant and young child, I wasn’t allowing her to learn how to process the emotions herself.” She cites Magda Gerber’s excellent advice about crying – Allowing a child to express her feeling positive and negative, is a healthy way to prepare her for life. If you accept your child’s feelings, you will help her accept them, too – and provides really valuable food for thought on trying to find a balance. This article provides some great practical solutions for helping and supporting babies with their emotions – from offering a choice of teething toys to help soothe a cry of pain, allowing the child to be active in its own soothing, to merely waiting a couple of minutes until they find their thumb. I have found it really helpful.

“Sadness, discomfort, frustration – they are all valid human emotions. Why would we want to suppress them?”
Magda Gerber

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