29. Jan, 2021
Fussy Baby: could your baby be a Highly Sensitive Baby (HSB)?
After an easy experience with my first child, Sarah, I really thought I knew what I was doing. My second baby, Noah was born in 2010, and then I realised that everything I had learnt with my daughter did not work with him.
I started to wonder if his behaviour was "normal". I read and researched, wondering why he was so fussy all the time, why didn't he want to sleep, why was no one else able to soothe him but me? He even fussed with his dad!
Despite recommendations from well-meaning friends and family to just let him cry out, I went with my maternal instinct and threw away the parenting books. After all, none had an answer and made me more inadequate as a mum.
I attuned to him, responded to his needs as I went along, and we co-slept, breastfed until he was ready to be autonomous. I am not going to lie; it was far from easy; I felt I had no time for me, not even to shower or eat something!
I am glad to say he is now a happy, secure, smart, kind 10-year-old, and I am relieved that I did not force hard routines on him as those so-called experts recommended.
But it wasn't until years later when I set up Holistic Babies London and started working with other babies in the community, that I started recognising traits that appeared so familiar to me.
I observed, listened to the mothers' experiences and realised that they encountered the same challenges I met with my son. On the one hand, it was reassuring for them to hear I had been there and experienced the frustration. On the other hand, all I could do was re-enforcing that responsive parenting, while the best approach for all babies, is even more "necessary with those babies. I call those babies the highly sensitive babies or HSB.
A Highly Sensitive Person or HSP is a term that was created by psychologist Elaine Aron back in 1991. HSP represents 15 to 20% of the population and present with sensory-processing sensitivity or SPS. In other words, being an HSP means living life in High Definition where every stimulus, positive or negative, feels "more".
Maybe it was because I am myself an HSP that I recognised those traits in babies, I "felt" how they felt, I understood their response to stimuli because I, too, get easily overstimulated by stimuli such as light, sounds, smells but I also react powerfully to beautiful music and art.
Early on, I could tell that my son was very much like me, but it wasn't until later, and understanding him (and myself) that I figured out that those babies needed to be parented in their own way, holistically.
What does it mean daily to care for a Highly Sensitive Baby?
While most babies are sensitive to stimuli, from the new smell, new people, bright light, the HSB reacts even more.
I have observed some common denominators in the HSB: (please note, many of those are common to all babies, but even more pronounced in the HSB).
- They want to be held all the time (preferably by mum).
- They do not want to sleep in their cot, Moses basket, not even in the sling sometimes
- But they need a lot of sleep!
- They struggle to self-regulate (and fall asleep independently), even as they get older.
- They often fight the sleep, forcing themselves awake.
- Their cry is loud, "impatient", there is an urgency to the "hold me", "feed me", "change me".
- They often love the bath/ water, and water has a strong calming effect on them.
- They are very sensitive to stimuli: a new person holding them, a new voice, a new environment.
- They are touch-sensitive: if you hold them a little too firmly, they scream in pain.
- Their pain reaction is excruciating to hear (vaccines!) – Highly sensitive people also have a low pain threshold.
- They are stressed when held by people they do not know, and they fuss.
- They are not keen on other people other than parents/ very close grandparents (and may still fuss with everyone except mum) unless it is someone who has cared for them since birth, to hold them/ cuddle them.
- They feed a lot: their nervous system is so easily overwhelmed that they need to feed/ suck (including dummy), to calm down.
- They get "bored" easily: as they become more focused on the world around them, they need a lot of stimulation (but keep in mind they get overstimulated quickly! It is often tricky to find the balance.)
- They are very curious: what we call the FOMO babies (fear of missing out)
- They are very responsive to music, particularly classical music, and can feel the emotions in a melody. My own son, when only a few months old, used to cry to a sad, melancholic piece of classical music. He is still a very sensitive boy.
- They need cuddles, lots and lots of cuddles!
- As they grow up, they can feel easily frustrated and angry (especially if tired): helping them identifying their emotion through mindfulness activities adapted to children can really help.
Why does the HSB need to be held and soothed more than other babies?
HSB reacts to stimuli more strongly and gets tired more easily. As the stress hormone, cortisol rises, they need cuddles, feeds, sucking on a dummy while being held to bring down their cortisol level and fall asleep. They have no awareness that they are tired and struggle to self-regulate (most babies do, but the HSB seems to take much longer to learn this and will rely on caregivers to help for much longer).
What about the mother/parent, of an HSB? How do they feel?
You will probably recognise yourself here. Mothers (and fathers/parterns), I have worked with report feeling drained at the end of the day, their energy completely depleted.
They often feel that nothing "works" and there is no winning combo with the HSB. None of the parenting books even touch on the topic!
What can you do to help your HSB?
- Throw away the parenting books that tell you what your baby should do; they do not know your baby, you do!
- Be aware of sleep training: sleep training & the "crying it out method" is not the most ethical way to get babies to sleep, they are even less effective and probably even more damaging in the HSB!
- However, create a soothing, calm environment to promote relaxation and sleep (you can use the example of bedtime routine here: Sleep: 1 to 6 months - www.holisticbabiesouthlondon.com )
- Bath with your baby: dim the light and enjoy a warm bath skin to skin at bedtime (dad/partner can too!).
- Cuddle, cuddle, cuddle, be responsive to your baby's needs: your baby is not naughty, or manipulative. This is a baby who needs "more" of you. You cannot over love a baby! We know that attachment/ responsive parenting creates happier, healthier, emotionally secure people!
- Be patient: I know it is hard to have patience when you are sleep deprived and overwhelmed, but your baby will pick up on your stress/ anxiety and respond by being more irritable and stressed!
- Sleep together (if you are breastfeeding and following the safe co-sleeping guidelines), eat together, be together, that is the way it was intended anyway.
- Your HSB will cry, maybe more than most, but crying in safe, loving arms is not the same as crying in a cot alone! Crying can be due to over-tiredness, and your baby needs you to help with sleep. Even if she cries, because she is fighting sleep (and you know she is tired!), try to stay calm, breathe and hold her. She will eventually fall asleep.
I promise you; there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Those early months and years are intense, but those babies are so special! I love hearing back from the parents of HSB and their progress. They are often curious, chatty, always keen to learn new things. They often have a favourite topic such as dinosaurs or astronomy (I spent most of my days at the Science Museum when Noah was a toddler as he was obsessed with the solar system!), Harry Potter, wild life (they can be quite obsessed and learn absolutely everything on the topic!).
All babies are a blessing, but those little creatures are truly a gift, and I believe it takes one special mama to raise, love and allow those bubbas to flourish into the bright, loving, kind little person they become.
After all, a world without sensitive souls would be a pretty dull world. I, for one, cannot imagine a world without Chopin's Nocturne 2 in E Flat, Maya Angelou's poetry, Steven Spielberg's cinematography and Martin Luther King's activism. Let's recognised and nurtured sensitive babies, children, teens and adults for the gifts they offer to this world. They may challenge us, drain us, but let's not dim their beautiful, shining light; they have way too much to offer!
Note: NSB are very responsive to Reiki Healing, and it can calm them by lowering their cortisol levels.
If you have an HSB and would like to discuss further how we can guide you and your baby, please contact: email@example.com