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Coping With an Unsettled Baby When You're Highly Sensitive

Updated on December 7, 2019
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Julia Moss Edvardsen is a mom, coach, mindfulness practitioner and blogger specializing in helping highly sensitive parents.

Is your baby high-need?

A high-need baby doesn´t schedule easily and can have problems establishing their own sleeping and waking patterns. Here are some characteristics:

  • It might be difficult to settle your baby into sleep, calm or soothe it when crying. They have problems to self-soothe.
  • They need lots of holding, cuddling, and attention to stay calm.

  • The baby can also wake up at night or after just very short sleeps.
  • They are active and have a hard time settling down, even during sleep (moves all over the crib).
  • They typically don't like to be left in a crib, car seat or carrier.
  • They are very sensitive to touch and doesn’t like to be put down or left alone.
  • They are not very adaptable, don’t like to be passed around and don’t accept new caregivers easily.
  • They are easily overstimulated (noise, meeting new people, traveling, etc) which can result in crying at the end of the day or at night.

Solving Baby's Sleep Problems

My 16-month-old daughter Ellen has never been a great sleeper. She was waking up every few hours until she was about 2 months old. Then I was happy if she slept 4 hours straight. She was usually up late, going down around 10 pm. As an infant, she was extremely fuzzy and needed constant holding, nursing and soothing. She didn't sleep through the night (6-8 hours) until she was 6 months old and she used to be held or rocked to sleep. She was still waking up at night sometimes but I think the main reason for that was that she was picking up the energies that weren't supposed to be there, as we were living in a haunted house (but that's another story).

When Ellen was almost 1 year old I decided to move to my own place, to get some peace of mind. I was always on edge and it was not sustainable for sure. I was still together with my spouse (Ellen´s dad) but we lived separately. At first, this seemed to be a good solution. Ellen settled fine in the new apartment and started daycare 3 days a week and everything went well. I also established a new sleeping routine by helping her learn to self-soothe in her own bed while I was singing and playing music for her. She still had a really hard time settling down for sleep but with consistency and lots of patience, it finally worked even if it took about 1 hour or so..

It wasn´t until I came across the term night terrors on the internet as I understood what this was all about.

Unfortunately, the peacefulness didn't last. One month later we got new neighbors upstairs and everything changed very quickly. It was a couple with two young kids (about 3 & 4 years old) and all their shouting, crying, running and jumping throughout the day and into the evening were driving me crazy. Ellen also began to have sleep problems as a result of all the noise, waking up late at night and wouldn't go back to sleep. It was a living hell. I didn't feel relaxed in my own home and after a few months, I felt compelled to move out.

I found a new apartment to rent in a quiet surrounding but unfortunately, moving again (and also shifting from one daycare to another) was hard for Ellen. Her sleep challenges became extra difficult as she refused to sleep in her own bed and was waking up frequently at night as well. She was almost impossible to comfort and extremely upset. This was also a time when my spouse was very busy working and renovating his old house for sale at the same time, so he was not around that much. I consulted Ellen´s nurse but it didn't help to try to talk her down and the situation got really stressful and frustrating. I had a hard time focusing on my studies daytime as I didn't get enough sufficient sleep. I was bone-tired.

It wasn´t until I came across the term night terrors on the internet as I understood what this was all about. A child in the middle of a night terror can’t really be calmed down, it can make it worse. I created my own strategy to make it stop and now it is several weeks since her last episode. It is such a relief.

Let go of guilt

My initial plan was to be a part-time “stay-at-home-mom” until Ellen was 2 years old and I had finished my studies but after all the struggles I decided to enroll her in daycare full time. I wise decision to take better care of myself while being a better mom at the same time. I love my daughter to the moon and back but I just couldn't make it, especially when her dad was not helping out that much.

Bringing up and caring for a spirited 1-year-old also takes a lot of time and energy, more than I expected as a new mom, to be honest. I admire her joy for life but her high energy can be challenging at times. It is a very persistent and strong-willed girl and if she doesn´t get what she wants instantly, it can cause a meltdown. She still fights sleep. Consistent sleeping routines and a warm bath can calm her down. She is also very gentle, compassionate and empathic, maybe a sensitive soul just like her mom.

It's totally ok to say no sometimes and you are enough, just as you are.

As a highly sensitive it is common to help others and give so much love and attention that there is nothing left to yourself. Still, we are often plagued with guilt or the feeling that we are not good enough. It is important that you don't give up your true soul just because you´re a parent. You are feeling guilty just because you are so compassionate towards others and care so much about them and their well-being. It's totally ok to say no sometimes and you are enough, just as you are. If you are ignoring your basic needs, you teach your children that it is not that important to take care of themselves, when they grow up. Healthy boundaries and self-care is not an option for a highly sensitive, it is a must.

Self-care is crucial

If you are dealing with a challenging baby as a highly sensitive parent, you need a lot of downtime to recharge and develop strategies for taking care of yourself. Try to avoid comparisons with other families and babies that sleep peacefully through the night. It will only make the situation harder. I have personal experience of sleep deprivation and an unsettled baby as a highly sensitive mom and I can say one thing, this is a serious problem that should not be taken lightly. Talk with a doctor, therapist or a healthcare professional if you need help.

For me personally, it can take days to recover from sleepless nights and I don't function properly. My most important self-care tips for you if you are in the same situation is to prioritize sleep and try to get help from your partner, friends and family. If it’s an option, hire a babysitter. Not getting enough sleep or rest as an HSP can cause emotional burnout and exhaustion, so start prioritize that before it is too late. Believe me, your nervous system and the rest of the family will thank you! If you can not sleep, just lay down on the couch, relax and stay off the phone. The next step is to get to know your baby’s signals and needs, try to understand his/her sleep patterns. This is easier when you are more relaxed and well-rested though.

Are you touched out?

If you are breastfeeding, carrying around, holding or maybe co-sleeping with your baby a lot it can also make your body feel tapped and completely touched out. All that closeness, affection and physical contact with your baby is very important for their development and can help them sleep better but it can be overstimulating for a highly sensitive. If you are touched out it can actually make you averse to intimacy with your partner, not wanting to be close or having sex. This is very important to address in your relationship to avoid misunderstandings. Maybe your partner or another family member can carry the baby in a sling while you are resting.

One last thing. It is important that there is some “quiet time” during your day. You don't get that physical and mental space you need if the kids are up until all hours of the night. Put them to bed early. This also gives you some sacred alone time with your spouse. If you have a high-needs baby and one (or both of you) are highly sensitive, it is crucial that you can reconnect as a couple. So, don't forget yourself and try to team up with your partner if you have one.

Please, check out my website and other articles and we´ll stay in touch!

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