I loved Sophie’s last post on how parents of fussy, colicky or high need kids are part of an exclusive club.
Without having thought of it in those terms before, that’s exactly what it’s like: The club that no one ever asked to join.
And while I’m the first to acknowledge that we need to feel thankful and blessed to have a healthy baby, simply shoving down our frustrations and covering them over with a ‘well, at least my baby is healthy’, or ‘things could be worse’, is just not helpful.
Glossing over the very real, very frustrating, very life-changing circumstances of having a fussy child doesn’t do anyone any good.
Not acknowledging how very hard it is leads to very angry, very sad, very isolated moms and dads. And I don’t think anyone thinks that’s a good thing.
How many times has someone said to you, “it’s just colic”?
Or how many times have you felt judged because you were ‘spoiling’ your child, or ‘letting’ your child call the shots?
Well if you find anyone saying these things to you, please send them to me.
I’ll set them straight.
I’ll explain exactly why it’s not ‘just’ colic or fussiness.
The Sleep Deprivation
I have heard almost-unbelievable stories of sleep deprivation among parents of non-sleeping babies.
Many, many fussy, colicky or ‘spirited’ babies and toddlers tell me that there child wakes up to 12 times per night.
12. times. per. night.
In my mind, this is pretty much akin to torture. When Sammy was a newborn, he slept in 45 minute increments. Feed for 45 minutes, sleep for 45 minutes.
Do you think I slept peacefully for those 45 minutes? No, I lay there, my stomach in knots, wondering when he was going to wake up screaming.
But I could catch up on sleep during the day? I was lucky in that my son napped. Many high need babies do not (or if they do, sleep only very short stretches). But with a 2.5 year old toddler? No naps for me.
The sleep deprivation (and I don’t use this term lightly) alone is enough to make a grown man cry.
But combine that with any or all of the other circumstances that emerge from having a high need baby? (see # 2-10 below).
It’s simply put, crazy-making.
And even for those who don’t have another child, ‘napping while the baby naps’ isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
With dishes piled sky-high in the sink begging to be washed, or the chance to squeeze in a quick shower, nap time doesn’t necessarily mean ‘free time’.
When you have a fussy baby, it feels like everyone else has an ‘easy baby’.
Although an estimated 1 in 5 babies are colicky, and an estimated 1 in 5 older babies or toddlers are ‘spirited’ to some degree, it often feels like you’re the only one who has ever had a baby that cried THIS much.
You may try to attend playgroups or mom’s groups, and find yourself having to comfort, soothe and distract your baby the entire time while the other mom’s sip their Starbucks and watch their child play.
When you try to talk to someone about how hard things are, you may get blank stares, or comments such as, ‘I know how you feel. Little Billy fusses almost every night before bed for at LEAST 30 minutes’.
It’s hard enough having a fussy baby, but feeling like you’re in this alone makes it doubly hard.
This is especially difficult during the early months when your little one can’t tell you what’s wrong.
Some ‘colicky’ babies have been known to cry during all their waking hours (I had one of these. The first time Sammy was awake and not crying was when he was 4 weeks old. It lasted about 10 minutes. We took a picture to commemorate the occasion).
Our primal instinct as mothers is to soothe and comfort our crying baby. If we have a baby who cries occasionally when he’s hungry, tired, or sick, we feel deep empathy for him. Our heart breaks as we listen to him cry and try everything to make him feel better.
When you have a baby who cries ALL THE TIME, this empathy can be difficult to drudge up. While we may feel it at times, the crying may trigger feelings of frustration, helplessness, anger, and even rage.
Is this how you pictured motherhood?
The Being Judged
It’s SO easy to look in from the outside and know what someone’s doing wrong. Or what they ‘should’ be doing.
It’s SO easy to think things like
“She [the mom] is so stressed out, the baby’s feeding off her anxiety”.
Or, “If she would just let him cry it out, the sleep problems and fussiness would disappear”.
Or, “If she would just stop coddling him all the time, he would learn to entertain himself”.
Do you think we haven’t thought each and every single one of these thoughts already?
Do you think we don’t beat ourselves up on a daily basis over what we ‘should’ be doing and what we’re doing wrong?
We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve been given. We’re tired. We’re frustrated. We’re alone. We may not even feel like we love our baby [It’s true].
Give us a break. Give us a hug! Tell us we’re doing great and to hang in there. Better yet, offer to babysit, take our baby for a walk, or bring us a coffee.
We expect judgement from strangers, maybe even friends at times. We can deal with that.
Judgement from our family? From our own moms? This can feel unbearable.
Some babies sleep at regular intervals, feed 5-7 times a day, with some playtime thrown into the mix.
High need babies are notorious for resisting any kind of routine or schedule. Here’s what that means for you: You can’t plan anything. ANYTHING. Oh, you can try. And sometimes it might actually work out. But don’t count on it.
Naps happen when naps happen. Bedtime tends to be when bedtime is. Plans change from minute to minute depending on how Miss Grumpypants is feeling about life.
Finally found a formula or a food that your baby will tolerate? Enjoy it while it lasts. Tomorrow he could be spitting it out, if he even swallows it in the first place.
Figured out a sleep routine that actually works? Well I hate to tell you – but it may not work tomorrow.
The Feelings of Failure
As moms, we have this belief that we should know our child inside and out. We should know their likes, their dislikes, what calms them, what upsets them.
With high need babies or spirited toddlers, things just aren’t this cut and dry. I truly believe that they themselves often don’t know what they want or need. So how are we to know?
But yet if we don’t know how to help our OWN CHILD, we feel like a failure. We look at other parents, so competent and confident, soothing their child.
What’s wrong with us that we can’t do that? What are we doing wrong? Were we really meant to be parents at all?
The No Down Time
This one is often tied into #5 above, unpredictability.
With ‘easy’ babies, there is usually a period of time during the day you can count on to get things done, take a nap, check email, etc.
And if your baby doesn’t nap much, at least you have some time off at night, right?
See #1 above, sleep deprivation.
With no predictable sleeping routine, it can be nearly impossible to have any true ‘down time’.
You put your little one down for a nap and FINALLY have the chance to sit down with a cold drink and catch up on your favorite TV show.
Yet one ear is always open, listening for that cry or scream coming from the crib (that is, if you’re lucky enough to have a baby who will actually sleep in the crib).
Many high need babies and toddlers have great difficulty staying asleep. If your child does nap, 20-45 minutes is pretty typical of these spirited kids. And this is usually after a long and elaborate soothing routine that can last as long as the nap itself.
Short naps and unpredictable nighttime sleep means no down time for mom. Think about it: Not even 1 hour in a 24 hour period where you’re ‘off duty’.
No time to recharge your batteries, have a chance to think about and miss your child. No time to be proactive in terms of how you’re parenting and how you’re coping.
You’re constantly reacting, operating in survival mode.
Your baby cries. A lot. You may have other children, but have no idea why this one cries so much.
Your doctor has said it’s ‘just’ colic, or perhaps diagnosed her with reflux.
But a part of you isn’t sure.
What if it’s something more serious? What if this isn’t simply colic, or a temperament issue at all? What if there’s something medically wrong with my child?
Even if you’re satisfied there’s nothing seriously wrong with your baby, it’s easy to fall into the trap of second-guessing pretty much everything you do:
Did I feed him enough?
Did I feed him too much?
Am I eating something that’s causing him pain?
Is he overtired?
Have I been letting him sleep too much?
Should I let him cry it out?
Should I respond to his cries quicker?
Even those who typically don’t have problems making decisions may find themselves becoming indecisive, or making decisions and then feeling guilt and/or regret over those decisions.
The Impact on Marriage and Family
Imagine having no time for your partner…and when you do have a few minutes alone, you’re too exhausted to carry on a coherent conversation.
Some parents say having a fussy baby brought them even closer to their spouse or significant other, but many others talk about quick tempers, lack of communication, and resentment for the spouse who gets to work outside the home.
Perhaps even more challenging is the impact on the other children in the family. Many parents tell me they feel profoundly guilty over the lack of time and energy they’re able to give their other kids.
Parenting a colicky or high need baby is all-consuming, and it often feels like there’s nothing left for anyone else. When your baby is crying, it’s pretty hard to say, ‘Now baby, you’re going to have to wait. I need to spend time with your sister’.
It just doesn’t work like that. When your baby is crying, you drop everything else in an effort to soothe him, regardless of the impact on others.
The Lack of Bonding
When your baby cries all the time, it’s really, really hard to form any positive memories with him.
You know how people remember back to the newborn days and say wistfully, “Enjoy every moment. It goes by so fast!”?
Well parents of colicky or high need babies CANNOT WAIT for their littles ones to grow up.
When my Sammy was a newborn, he spent every waking moment crying or screaming. We didn’t have those calm, peaceful moments cuddling on the couch. I never watched him sleep and thought about how blessed I was.
What I did think about was, “What kind of a mother am I that I don’t know if I love my own son?”.
Although it pains me to say it now, I didn’t even think he was cute. He had a permanent crease between his eyes and a frown lines on his forehead from all the crying.
I imagined that he wished he had never been born. And truthfully, sometimes I wished the same.
What kind of a mother thinks these things?
Many mothers of fussy, colicky and high need babies, that’s what kind of mother.
I’m hoping if you’ve been sent to this post by a daughter, friend, or family member with a fussy, colicky or high need baby or toddler, you’re starting to understand a little bit about what they go through on a daily basis.
If you take anything away from this post, please let it be this:
We don’t need more judgement. We judge ourselves far more harshly than you ever can.
Offer to help us. Love us. Give us a hug. Tell us “I can only imagine how hard this is for you“.
Remind us we’re not alone. That we’re in this together.