Sleep Tips for High Need Kids

10:02 am |

By Rebecca Michi, Infant Sleep Consultant

When we have a baby we know we’ll be tired, we’ll be getting up a few times a night to feed. But having a high need infant is very different.

There can be hours and hours of not sleeping, followed by hours and hours of fussiness. Nothing you seem to do helps your child to relax enough to sleep and if you are successful at getting your little bundle to sleep you can’t actually move! No chance of getting them in the crib!

Chances are if you’re reading this, your child is a little higher needs than your friends’ babies and chances are you’re pretty exhausted.

I’m a children’s sleep specialist who works with families who have children under the age of six. I teach parents how to teach their children to sleep better (even through the night) without ever leaving them to cry-it-out.

I’m also the Mom of a high need child. My eldest daughter is nearly eight years old and has always been more intense and higher needs than her peers; she needed a LOT of help learning to fall asleep independently.

Most of the families I work with have a high need child. Studies show that a child who is more intense does need more help in learning to fall asleep independently. Those easy going, laid-back kiddos can fall asleep anywhere and it’s very rare that I get to work with children who have these temperaments.

Tips for Helping Your High Need Child Sleep

Here are some ideas to get you on the way to getting just a little more sleep.

If you suspect your baby is overtired, try this:

Children thrive on routine and higher needs children seem to like them more.

A daily routine will ensure that your child doesn’t become overtired (nap times are always at the same time); meal times should also be scheduled in the routine. You’ll avoid your child becoming overly hungry, which can shorten naps. Life is pretty predictable when you’re on a routine and easy to relax into.

Your child will probably have a very small ‘sleep window’, meaning when they show you those tired signs (yawning, pulling on ears, getting noisy) they are probably ready to be falling asleep there and then. By the time you’ve finished what you’re doing, got your child’s diaper changed and then started their nap routine they have already become overtired. (An overtired child struggles to fall asleep and remain asleep).

Having nap and nighttime routines will help your child relax making sleep just a little easier to come by. 10/15 minutes for a nap routine and between 30 minutes and an hour at night is ideal. You’ll need to be consistent with these routines, do the same thing in the same place at the same stage of the routine, every time. This will become very predictable for your child and they’ll begin to relax and unwind as soon as you start the routine.

If your child appears overstimulated before naptime, try this:

If your child is over stimulated before a nap (a nap which lasts between 20 and 30 minutes usually means your child is over-stimulated) then you’ll want to introduce what I call a walking wind down before you start the nap routine.

10/15 minutes before you start the nap routine take your child away from their toys and walk around with them. Look out of the windows, sing some songs quietly, and get them nice and relaxed. This will help your child’s brain to slow down before you get them down for their nap and therefor actually making it easier for them to fall asleep.

It’s worth putting the extra effort in before the nap starts, as your child is more likely to fall asleep easier and get a longer nap.

If your child loves to be held by you whist they sleep and you have a hard time getting them in the crib, try the following.

Wear the crib sheet and swaddling blanket! Stuff them up your shirt for a while, you want them both to smell of you.

Put the sheet on the crib mattress before you get them down for sleep and swaddle them in the ‘you’ smelling swaddle blanket. (I do advise swaddling all higher needs infants until they can roll over by themselves). Make sure the crib isn’t too cold when you pop them in. If you have rocked or held them to sleep and you try and get them down in a cool crib that can wake up.

Place a heating pad in the crib when you put the sheet back on. Remove the pad before you put your child in the crib and make sure the mattress is not too hot. I would then wait with your child until they are in a deep sleep. It’s very frustrating having to keep returning to your child to help them back to sleep. Wait with them for 20 minutes after they fall asleep, that way they have more of a chance of getting into a deeper sleep.

If your child has a pacifier and they are waking many times for you to pop it back in, try this:

When your child gets to around 6 months they can get their own pacifier back into their mouth.

Whenever you give your child their pacifier don’t put it in their mouth. Put it in their hand, and you can guide their hand to their mouth if you need to. You’re teaching your child that they can put the pacifier in their mouth by themselves.

Play a game of hide the paci. When your child is not tired or hungry pop them in the crib, hide some pacifiers under a stuffed toy or blanket and play hide the paci. Give praise when your child finds one. You’re teaching your child that there are pacifiers in the crib even if they can’t see them.

Place at least half a dozen pacifiers in the crib each sleep time; they’ll have more of a chance of finding one during sleep time if there are a lot of them.

If your child sleeps with their hands closed into fists you can place a pacifier in each hand once they are asleep, then they don’t even have to search for one when they fall asleep.

If you are having trouble getting your infant to sleep and remain asleep, try my advice above. I don’t think it will suddenly make them sleep through the night but it may make sleep a little easier for them and I know that as parents of high need, fussy babies we’ll take every extra minute we can get.

Rebecca Michi is a parenting consultant and children’s sleep specialist based in the Seattle area. To find out more about Rebecca’s service, visit her website.

Do you have a toddler or preschooler who wakes up too early? Help him learn healthy sleep patterns and get more sleep with the Zazoo photo clock. This multimedia clock displays a colourful sunshiny scene when it’s time to get up, and a moon when it’s sleep time. Great for kids who can’t yet read a regular clock!

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Category: High Need Babies, Sleep

Comments (11)

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  1. Kerry Hyde says:

    Can we get one of these for toddlers? Some how some way I have survived infancy, my son is now 2 years and maxes out at 5 hours of sleep per night. Any suggestions for older kiddos would be great….then again I think he has pretty much convinced me that he just doesn’t need much sleep. :-/

    • admin says:

      Kerry, I will ask Rebecca! 5 hours of sleep a night doesn’t sound at all sufficient to me (I especially worry about you only having 5 hours ‘off’ a night!). Have you read Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child? I know he gives sleeping requirements for kids of different ages…I highly recommend it!

  2. Karen says:

    Like kerry, i survived infantsey , somehow…in fact bout nine months until 15 months she went down easy n slept all night…but that 15 until now at 22months she goes down fine still but wakes once through the night n nothing but bringing her in bed with me will work.. She literally wakes up n screams n bounces til we come, i tried CIO many times n my son will wake up (8years old) n lays in his bed,whining which makes her scream louder…n we arent in the country n already had neighbors comment on hearing her… at a loss….i really want to transit to big girl bed instead of crib for her 2nd bday but im not going to until she stops waking up

  3. Misty says:

    First baby, now seven = total breeze, relatively speaking. Baby #2 is 13 months old and naps really well now (took short naps at first), but goes through long periods of not wanting to go to bed at night until 10 or 11 pm. Needless to say, the whole family is affected. I am finding that most likely, she is high-needs. She is constantly fussy/wakes fussy 95% of the time and seems constantly tired w/bags under her eyes. She never sticks to the same plan for long, even when we do…then we find ourselves being just as inconsistent. She seems to LOVE new places (things too, people, not so much – real attachment to mommy, but she actually seems more upset when I enter the room or try to console her, so that confuses me), and she is ever-changing beyond the norm, but it does seem that routine, routine, routine will be the key. We are going to try the walking wind down and maybe the heating pad (she gets really hot at night, but putting her down in a warmed bed w/the pad off so it will then cool might work). It seems like she might be having night terrors sometimes as well; she wakes in hysterics, pointing at any glimmer of light she can see – upset if we turn it off, upset if we turn it on, upset no matter what. She also does this when she does not want to go down, and the only thing we can conclude is that she wants to “hang out” some more – needs more wind down time. Other things that seem sort of odd or that might be pertinent: Rocks violently, hates getting diaper changed (getting better at this though), hates getting dressed & undressed, hated water for first several months of her life (bath time was a horror. BTW, baths get her wound up), loves the outdoors, does not respond to loud abrupt sounds unless they are directed at her, extremely vocal, extremely perceptive and curious (seems to wonder how things work, and sizes new people up before she either smiles or looks away), has spoken a “normal” number of words for her age but doesn’t often use them, is not easily distracted once she is upset, and often even if she is just on a task/mission, does not like the car, but also doesn’t hate it, unless she is too tired (which we avoid at all costs). If we are leaving the house, she knows that means something different, so she likes it. But if she likes where we are (away from home), she will scream and throw a fit when I put her in the car to leave/go home. During the times she is in the car too tired, we have had to pull over more than once to clean up vomit from her getting too worked up and deal with things before we got back on the road, at which point she is still not happy, but manageable. She has also vomited in her crib getting too worked up. CIO is not an option, for many reasons, but that is one. She has a new “obsession” with toothbrushes – loves to almost always have one to either chew on or hit things/drum with, she loves her head and back rubbed but resists it when she wants to fight sleep, has been soothed by only the bottle in the past; she would not take a pacifier, her thumb or any object. She has recently taken to a particular blanket, and she sometimes does not want the bottle; she lets it relax her, but only if she is hungry, which is good and fine. We are trying to keep the blanket associated with sleep time only (not let her carry it around when it’s not time to lay down), and I think this is achievable without too much pain; it just started, so we are still setting the precedent with it. She eats a lot and has lots of bowel movements. Her favorite foods seem to be starchy; bananas, pasta, tortillas. She does love mangos and avocados too. She has six teeth and does not seem to be teething when these things happen. So far, there appears to be no medical reason for any of this, and it has been ongoing since day 1. Anyway, if you have any other specific feedback, I will gratefully take it to heart . Thanks in advance!

  4. Kerry Hyde says:

    Mmmmmm, Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child, I will have to check that out! My son (just turned 3, 2 weeks ago) only did 2 hrs of sleep per day the first year of his life, second year we were up to 4 hours, 3rd year were up to 6! He’s getting better, but maaaaan is it taking forever! He still wakes up many times through out the night….good thing about that is that he was potty trained looooong time ago, since he’s up all night we can always take him to the potty, so some good came out of it, lol! 😀

  5. Autumn says:

    My (almost) 5 month old baby girl is a turkey. She has all of the 12+ characteristics of a “High Need Baby”. I feel like I can’t please her. I can’t even eat lunch without getting screamed at from the bouncy chair. She has never slept through the night, in fact, it seems as though her naps and sleep times are getting shorter and farther between. If she hears anything when she wakes at night she doesn’t go back to sleep for at least an hour. She wakes up at least twice, sometimes three or even five times a night. And she isn’t even hungry, just needs me to put her back to sleep. And I’ve tried and tried letting her do it herself. No go. Is there something wrong with her? She doesn’t even let her dad hold her at night. I have to be the one taking care of her needs, especially in the evening. What do I do?? Is she okay?? I feel guilty but I just wish someone else could soothe her so I could take a nap. I love her and I love to play with her and teach her things. She is very attentive. I just am sooooo tired…

  6. Mandy says:

    My little boy just turned 7 months. He has every characteristic of a high need baby. Thing with him is… He wants everything done FOR him. For starters…. He likes to play with his paci. He is in the process of learning how to get it in his mouth correctly. He will know on the sides of it, drop it, lose it… And scream and cry automatically. I have tried to put it in his hand and guide his hand to his mouth but he gets very upset and squals and gives up. He has no nap schedule because his naps are sometimes 45 min., sometimes an hour, sometimes 20 min. (you get the idea). So he wakes up from naps moody and stays moody all day. We have tried to get him to go back to sleep after a short nap but he won’t have it. He hates his high chair. He loves food sometimes and won’t have it at all at other times. He wakes up at least 5-10 times a night for paci and daddy and I take turns getting up to pop it back in. I feel so desperate. I don’t enjoy taking him out because it turns bad very quick. He is a sweetheart … He laughs and is hitting his milestones but stays so cranky. I feel depressed… Worn out…. Confused…. Help! I am scared to be at home one day alone with him because I know the challenges I will face. I am having such a hard time. Any advice? Thank you!!

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