We’ve known since Little T was tiny that he is what Dr Sears describes as ‘high needs‘. At 13 months he has never fallen asleep in his own bed or without being rocked. He has extreme energy and a voracious appetite, and while he doesn’t nurse, he does feed for comfort. A LOT. He frequently wants to be picked up and held, but simultaneously demands to be put down and allowed to explore. He hates to be left and is super-sensitive to loud noises. He takes a long time to settle and wakes easily. He needs constant stimulation and is quick to anger and frustration if he’s ever bored. Most recently he’s started crying so fiercely he makes himself gag if we leave him in his cot for two minutes so we can use the toilet.
Some of these behaviours are normal in toddlers of his age, and some aren’t. It’s easy to fall into the trap of pathologising our children so we don’t bear the difficult times on the shoulders of our parenting, but it’s important to be aware that all babies are different and have specific needs. Recognising Little T’s amazing quirks and occasional challenges is crucial for us in understanding our son and nurturing him appropriately.
It helps that he’s such a wonderful little boy. He’s hyper-sensitive, but it manifests in beautiful ways at times; at only ten months old he sat at my feet quietly while I held a friend’s newborn, knowing without being told that Mummy was doing something very important and he needed to be quiet and careful. It melted my heart. And he picks up on the emotions of others, beaming gleefully if I open a romantic text from Big T, or furrowing his brow if I read an upsetting news headline. His sensitivity, though hard work, is a gift to the people around him.
(Hard work it certainly is though. Anyone who’s babysat for us has had the glazed look of someone who’s just run a marathon while being chased by a herd of frightened wildebeest, whether it’s been half an hour or three.)
There are days I wish he was quieter, calmer – easier. I look at other children sweetly playing or falling asleep in cots or beds or slings, or even able to watch a ten minute episode of 64 Zoo Lane without throwing things or pushing over the television, and I wish I had that, even just for a day so I could take a deep breath before diving in to the chaos for another week, or heck, another year. I’m tired of cancelling daytime plans with friends and being unable to attend sling meets because he’ll only nap at home in his car seat while I rock him. I’m tired of being hit and scratched. I’m tired of constantly feeling as though I’m failing as a mother in not meeting his ever changing needs.
Big T gets stressed by it too. After a long day at work he comes home to our hurricane of a 1 year old while I ‘relax’ by making dinner and switching my brain off. The night continues in a blur of toys, books, laughter and tantrums until 9pm when Little T finally sleeps, by which time we’re too exhausted to exchange so much as a, ‘how was your day?’
We’ve seen some people make the decision to start trying to conceive another baby when their eldest gets to Little T’s age, sometimes earlier, but we know in our hearts that we can’t do that. Not yet, not while we’re stretched so thin. I couldn’t manage a pregnancy on top of the physical demands of being a stay at home parent, and I wouldn’t be able to give Little T the attention he needs with a newborn to care for too. It wouldn’t be fair to either child.
And ultimately, he does need the attention. Life for him is a storm of emotions and new experiences, some of which he finds more intense than other children might, and it’s our job as parents to support him and help him feel secure while he navigates his way through it. What that means is being responsive, respectful, and above all empathetic.
Beyond it all though – the sleep deprivation, the isolation and complete absence of time for ourselves or each other – we wouldn’t change a thing. Every day with our son is like being in a surreal but wonderful theatre, watching this little person grow and evolve on stage, being part of every ear splitting drama and each shining victory. He is giving us the beautiful gift of his every thought and discovery, however he articulates it at this precious age, and it’s magical. I’ve started signing with him more regularly, and at the moment we’re learning ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ as I’m convinced being able to communicate will ease his frustration, and mine. His favourite sign at the moment is ‘sleep’ which he does by moving my hands into place rather than his own, and it’s so soul-achingly adorable that I almost hope he keeps doing it that way indefinitely.
So what is life like with a high needs baby? The short answer is that it’s hard, but in the way going to the gym and pounding the treadmill for three hours is hard; it’s tough and it hurts, but it invigorates and motivates you like nothing else.
Now where’s the coffee…