How to deal with your high needs baby (a.k.a. how to not throw your crying banshee out the window, a.k.a. how to not leave your baby at the fire station even though you really want to):

Fussy baby. Colicky baby. High Needs baby. Baby that cries. All. The. Time.  Or… baby that cries every day around the same time for a prolonged period of time.

I am not a big fan of labels in general. I think when you give yourself or your child a label, you or she will inevitably live up to that name. Therefore, when Lucy cried everyday for four hours from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm for I-can’t-remember-how-long, even though she was by definition “colicky,” I refused to adopt the title. I decided to adopt the much more endearing term by Dr. Sears, “The High Needs Baby.” Looking back, I think Lucy was just going through womb withdrawal. She would have only really been happy if I had shoved her back into my belly.  

Sadly, that was not an option. So, the only thing that worked for her was duplicating the womb experience as closely as possible. You have probably heard of the “fourth trimester,” right? The theory is that since human babies have such big heads, they need to be born ASAP after their lungs are mature so they don’t get stuck inside (some babies still get stuck inside anyway and we have to cut them out). The downside of pushing out a baby so soon is that they are way too immature to handle what we here on the outside think they are supposed to be able to handle. They don’t want to be put down. Ever. They don’t want anyone but mom to hold them. Ever. They don’t want you to sit down. Ever. They don’t want you to take the boob out of their mouth. Ever. 

They are, in fact, milk sucking parasites for the first eight to ten weeks.  It is okay if you find that you don’t even like your little parasite that much for the first few weeks. It takes that long for them to give you any sort of feedback that they even realize you have a face attached to your boob.  It is human nature to seek some sort of acknowledgement or reward for a job well done. This little thing has got no love for you until eight to ten weeks–but he sure does need you. 

Okay, so, if your baby fusses, but is consolable, count yourself lucky. What does consolable mean? It means that your baby cries, you try a few things to make baby stop crying, and something works within a relatively short time.  Oftentimes, if you do that thing for a little while, baby will fall asleep and may even let you put him down in a moving, swinging, bouncing, vibrating machine that has tricked him into thinking he is being held. Chances are pretty good he will not let you put him down on a flat, cold surface such as a bassinet or crib. 

If your baby fusses. Cries. Screams. Like an ear-piercing, god-awful, peel-wallpaper-off-the-walls scream and after many, many attempts to make this baby stop crying, nothing is working; if you are lucky enough to have someone to hand your baby to, you may opt to throw (I mean hand) your baby to that person and take a step outside to scream, cry, or stare off into space. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a relief pitcher, you may put the crying baby down in a safe place, then walk outside and scream, cry, or stare off into space.

As normal parents assume, you assume there is a reason your baby seems to be possessed by Satan and sent here to ruin your life by crying all day every day.  Perhaps you have Googled “fussy baby” and come up with a laundry list of reasons why your baby cries so much. I guarantee your top three Dr. Google diagnoses will be reflux, foremilk/hindmilk imbalance, and dairy intolerance. Please read my blogs before you commit to any of these–then consider the fourth possibility: nothing. Perhaps you simply have a high needs baby. I did. 

As a breastfeeding mom, hearing your baby cry is particularly difficult. I may get some nasty comments made at me here, but there is a biological, physical, and emotional connection between you and your baby when you are breastfeeding. Your baby cries (or any baby cries, for that matter) and your body gets ready to feed. Sometimes, you just leak in the middle of the grocery store, even though your baby is five miles away at home with dad.  The cry from a breastfed baby is physically painful to a breastfeeding mother.  

So here is my best advice for the parents of a high needs baby. Yes, this is the five S’s from Harvey Karp’s Happiest Baby on the Block, but I am going to reinforce this with my own twist–because it works to make a baby shut up. But you have to be doing it correctly, and most people aren’t. 

Your High Needs Baby tool kit:

  • Swaddling blanket, miracle blanket, Swaddle Me blanket, etc.
  • Moby wrap or other simple piece of cloth or a ring sling
  • A $5 exercise ball from Five Below
  • A variety of pacifiers
  • Your boobs
  • Your mouth saying “SHHHH” or a white noise app or machine.
  • Patience
  • Ice cream (optional)

1. Tight boundaries (swaddle):

So, the swaddle is not something babies are a fan of getting into. In fact, they will probably fight you. But swaddling gives your baby the boundaries he needs to feel safe. In the womb, your baby moved, then felt the very tight hug from your belly and relaxed. You’ve seen your baby startle, right? When it looks like he was scared or is cold? He is just having a reflex that helps him check in and make sure he is safe in a person’s arms. If he startles and feels nothing, he gets really upset. So strap him into a tight miracle blanket or Swaddle Me blanket and proceed to the next step.   Alternatively, you can create tight boundaries by wearing your baby in a wrap or sling style carrier. This tightly binds baby to your body, so it gives him boundaries and lets him know a person is holding him. 

A note on hands-in versus hands-out: A lot of parents tell me, “He likes his hands out.”  So they swaddle their baby with his hands out. I appreciate you trying to figure out what your newborn likes and doesn’t like, but, well, your baby doesn’t know those are his hands. They are right there next to his face on purpose so he reminds himself to eat by eliciting his root reflex. But they are also right there to constantly touch his face, which makes him root and thinks he wants to eat. They are also there for him to startle and hit himself in the face, claw his own eyes out and gag himself with, and then scream because someone just accosted him.  If you want your baby to settle and sleep, Swaddle. Hands. In. Trust me on this one. 

2. Sucking:

If you haven’t read my blog on pacifiers, read it. Babies have a need to suck. On your boob or on a pacifier, sucking soothes because it reassures a baby that his food is nearby and he is going to live. So, of course a baby wants to suck on the boob even when he isn’t hungry. Boob=Life.  No boob = death.  I am not being melodramatic. Newborns are melodramatic. If they don’t have a boob in their mouth, they literally think they are dying. So, you either need to put a boob in their mouth or trick them into thinking there is a boob in their mouth. That means give him a pacifier. Please note, it takes a little bit of convincing to get a baby to take a pacifier. Try all different shapes and sizes before you give up and decide that “he doesn’t like pacifiers.” Again, I appreciate your interest in your baby’s likes and dislikes, but he just doesn’t have the awareness to make that decision.

3. Sway or movement:

“Sway,” as Dr. Karp calls it, means serious movement.  Like, assertive (not aggressive) movement. Don’t shake the baby, of course, but it takes some serious movement to make a baby relax. This is where an exercise ball comes in handy because it is only time your high needs baby will let you sit down. If you sit and assertively bounce, bounce, bounce on that ball, he may just be fooled into thinking you are standing and walking. Otherwise, expect to walk and bounce and walk and bounce and walk and bounce and…

4. SHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!:

Loud, repetitive shushing. Vacuuming. A very loud bathroom fan.  The bathtub water running (Lucy’s favorite). The hair dryer.  Loud white noise reminds baby of the sounds he heard in the womb. It was LOUD in there!  So, typically, a loud “SHHHHHHH” will make your baby break his crying cycle long enough to look around and get a look on his face that seems to say, “Hey, I have heard that somewhere before.”  

5. Side:

There is something about laying a baby on his side that makes him settle. I don’t know why. It just does. Maybe they actually want to be held upside down like they were in the belly, but it just doesn’t seem right to do that. So, don’t try holding your baby upside down. 

It also seems to be particularly helpful if you hold the baby away from you on his side. That way his reflexes aren’t triggered to root toward a warm body.

Okay, so the magic comes when you put many of these into different combinations. My favorite is putting all five together like this:

  • Tight swaddle hands in
  • Lying on his side away from dad
  • Pacifier held in place with a thumb
  • Standing up and moving
  • All dad needs to do now is lean down into Max’s ear and “SHHHHHHHHH!!”

I automatically do this with newborns all the time in my office if they start to lose their mind and it works like a charm.

It doesn’t usually work if you just use one or two of the S’s.  This daddy is doing “side,” but without the swaddle and the suck, this kid isn’t having it.

With Lucy, she preferred being wrapped in the sling and simultaneously walked/bounced and nursed while I shushed loudly or ran the vacuum.  Yes, that was my life for three to four hours every evening for at least eight weeks. I have shockingly few pictures of this crazy fussy time. It is probably for the best that way!

Some other combinations:

Wrapping baby in a sling and bouncing on the ball while holding a pacifier in her mouth. 

Swaddle, pacifier, side in the bathroom with the tub faucet running.

Swaddle, pacifier, side-lying on your lap, shaking legs side-to-side and shushing. 

When in doubt, wear, wear, wear.

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