My first child was a breeze in nearly every way. Besides the initial weeks where she suffered a pretty rough case of colic, she was so easy-going and sweet. She was happy just to hang out in her swing or lay on the floor in her baby gym for however long I needed her to so I could make a phone call or start dinner. Our days were uneventful in the best possible way- there was very little that could happen that would throw her off. It was when my son was born that I was introduced to the concept of the high-need baby/sensitive child. And that was when I learned that having a sensitive child is like handling a grenade. You have to be very careful or you might have a devastating explosion on your hands.
Don't get me wrong- I fiercely love my son and even after all of the challenges he has put us through, I still would not change a hair on his head. His sensitive nature brings with it so many wonderful qualities that I am willing to put up with the hard parts with a smile on my face. Most of the time.
I first became aware of the term "high-need baby" when my son was just a few months old. He was so desperate for human contact at all times. I would no sooner lay him down, thinking he was asleep, and he would snap awake frantically bleating and clawing at the air. The only things that soothed him were my boobs and being held. My daughter was nothing like this and I thought I must be doing it wrong. I was plagued with self-doubt and constantly sleep-deprived. His first year was draining for me, to say the least.
He refused a bottle, refused to sleep independently and wouldn't take a pacifier. I remember reading online about the features of high-need babies and figuring out that he had every single one. He was obviously intelligent and knew how to "upgrade his accommodations", as Dr. Sear's would say. He knew what was the most comfortable and wonderful thing- being carried in a sling all day, being in bed with momma and nursing on and off all night- so he would not settle for anything less. As my husband and I were reluctant co-sleepers, we never slept well with him in our bed. Even after taking every precaution and eliminating most bedding and our pillows, we still did not feel good about it. However, it was the only way he would settle in for the night so we cracked out of desperation.
All of the features that made him a difficult baby manifested in different ways as a toddler and child. He stopped nursing at around 18 months old but still had an extreme need for closeness and physical contact. It took maybe a year from that point before he could fall asleep without me beside him stroking his head- not my husband, me. It was like he wanted my scent or my touch- I don't know. At first, it was greatly upsetting to me- I felt like I had no freedom and desperately wanted to have time to myself. I had nursed him for a long time (on an elimination diet no less, but that's a whole other post) and I wanted my own body and life back very badly. Over time, I resigned myself to it and decided he was just a different kind of kid and I needed to adjust. I had to resist the urge to compare him to his easy-going sister and realize that he was normal, just nothing like her. He was his own brand of normal.
His tough toddler ways turned into what I now call a truly sensitive child. He is five years old and he feels things in a way that most children his age do not. He over-thinks a lot of minor situations and worries incessantly. I can barely broach the topic of kindergarten this fall and what he will be learning without him going on a tangent about how he "doesn't know enough" about the alphabet or numbers or whatever. He needs to be the best at everything or he starts to get nervous. He doesn't respond well to criticism and he gets very upset at the smallest slights and takes a long time to forget them. He takes everything to heart and hates to be teased. We carefully consider how we word things with him.
If I were an outside party witnessing the way my husband and I parent my son, I might roll my eyes. We are by no means pushovers, but we do tend to give him a bit of a longer leash than we probably should from their perspective because we know how things will go if we don't work with him. We also know that he is not trying to be malicious or difficult- even from his baby days his hysteria always had a point. For a long time, we fought it. We fought his nature and tried to impose our will on him. For example, when he was around three, he started wanting to "read" in his bed until quite late after we had already tucked him in. We both work full-time and he has to get up early so we would keep going back into his room, take away his books, and tell him he had to go to sleep.
Over time, after noticing his natural sleep patterns on weekends, we realized the truth- he defied every book and study about the sleep a pre-school child needs. He truly did not need that much sleep. He was chipper, happy and functional on about two hours less per night than is recommended for children his age. Now that we know this, we do allow him his little reading time and he shuts the books and his Flashlight Friend on his own and drifts off, probably around 10pm. I know most parents would scoff at this but to us, it's just how he operates. We have had to learn to bend and sway and not insist that he be like every other five year old- because he is not every other five year old. He is unique and we are alright with that.
It is my hope that over time, he will find his own ways to cope with the things that bother him. As he's grown up, I have noticed that talking things out before he is ready does not work- that is a great recipe for either a total explosion or complete shutdown. I have to wait for him to come around and decide he is ready to talk. There is a lot we are still trying to figure out but we are in it together. He and I (and my husband) are all learning how best to work with his personality and the way he needs things to be and I constantly hope that we are doing it right. Both for his sake, and ours.