Life With a High Needs Toddler

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Oh, hello there! If you’ve stopped to read this post, you may wonder if you are also the parent of a high-needs toddler. You may need some encouragement, commiseration, or even a shoulder to cry on.

Welcome. You’re not alone. 

Having a child with high needs isn’t for the faint of heart and can leave you exhausted. Believe me, I know. I have one, too.

High Need Toddler

What is a High-Needs Toddler?

I believe the first person to coin the phrase high needs was Dr. Sears. He was the parent of a high-needs baby and wrote some articles and a book on the subject. These are the characteristics he uses to describe the high-needs baby:

  1. Intense | High-need children are often exaggerated in everything that they do. They cry louder, laugh louder, and play harder and longer than other children.
  2. High energy | High-need children are in constant motion, moving from one task to another. They hardly ever sit down and focus on one thing for long periods. 
  3. Draining | All of that intensity and high energy can be tiring. As parents and caregivers, we must stay one step ahead of them at all times.
  4. Feeds frequently | High-need babies don’t have a typical feeding routine like most babies. Most want to be latched on seemingly forever. As toddlers, they still snack often throughout the day.
  5. Demanding | High-needs children want and need constant attention. They will also interrupt conversations to the point where you can’t have a full conversation with anyone else.
  6. Awakens frequently | High-need children are often difficult to get to sleep, and they tend to wake frequently during the night. Don’t expect them to start sleeping through the night by 3 months, and probably not even by six months. In fact, it could be 2 or 3 years before they sleep through the night consistently.
  7. Unsatisfied | High-need toddlers can be hard to please. They will want one thing, then change their minds on a dime. 
  8. Unpredictable | One minute, they are the sweetest, funniest child on the face of the planet, and bam! The next minute, complete meltdown. 
  9. Super-sensitive | High-need children are very alert to changes in their environment, especially sudden ones.
  10. Can’t put them down | High-needs children, especially high-need babies, need a lot of physical contact. They like to be worn, held, and cuddled more often than typical babies. They are not always satisfied with baby seats, exersaucers, and swings.
  11. Not self-soothing | High-need babies need to be soothed by their caregivers often and cannot “calm down” on their own. 
  12. Separation sensitive | A high-needs toddler wants to be with their parents or familiar people all the time, beyond the typical separation anxiety that most toddlers experience. 

Did you nod your head while reading each of those characteristics? If so, you just might be the parent of a high-needs toddler. If you’re unsure, you can take this high-needs toddler quiz for more insight. 

Related: Potty Training a Stubborn Preschooler

Life With a High-Needs Baby

This may sound like most babies and toddlers, but it is more extreme than typical behavior. In many ways, my high-needs child is far more tiring than my child with ADHD. One would think that the ADHD child would be more tiring, right?

He started walking before his first birthday, then started running and climbing soon after that. He is constantly on the move and needs to be watched like a hawk all day long.

Some days I feel like I have to stare at him from the time he gets up until the time he goes to bed.

My house is a pit; I don’t get to shower until mid-afternoon, I don’t have as much time as I would like to devote to the blog, and I am exhausted most days. I haven’t felt well rested in almost three years.

High-Needs Baby Sleep Patterns

As a baby, he never slept. He would catnap during the day in a swing or bouncy seat but never for more than an hour at a time. At night? Forget it!

Our nights looked like this:

  • My husband would go to bed at 6:00 pm while I stayed up until 2:00 am.
  • At 2:00 am, I would wake my husband up so I could go to bed, and he would stay up until he left for work.
  • He’d work all day, come home, eat dinner, go to bed, repeat.

But he wasn’t just awake all night; he was awake and screaming most of the night. We thought he might have colic, but none of the other factors fit.

Around 3 months old, he would finally sleep a bit but was still up 3-5 times a night to nurse. At about 18 months old, I needed to night wean him for my sanity. Did he then sleep through the night? No. He didn’t sleep through the night until just after his second birthday.

My Life with a High Need Toddler

Now that he is a toddler, he loves to cuddle, but on his terms. If he wants a hug or to sit on your lap, you’d better be ready to accommodate the little master, or you’ll hear about it.

Most times, it’s a welcome diversion and a great excuse to chill out for a few minutes, but there are times when it isn’t always convenient to stop what I’m doing right then to sit down for a story or a cuddle.

He is ON from the second he wakes up until he crashes. He doesn’t wake up gradually either. The second he opens his eyes, he starts talking or singing. There is no in-between with him.

He has also more or less stopped taking naps. Unfortunately, when he doesn’t nap, we are all miserable by 6:00 pm and counting down the minutes until bedtime. He yells, whines, has tantrums, growls, refuses to eat, will change his mind on a dime, and is just generally unpleasant.

When he has a nap, he is a totally different child. It’s fabulous!

High-Needs Toddler Tantrums

The tantrums. Oh, my. Tantrums were new territory for me since my oldest has never had a tantrum in his life. Seriously, he was so easy! But our youngest has at least one a day.

It’s exhausting. We’re not just talking about yelling and crying for a few minutes. No. These are full-blown violent outbursts, including flailing around, throwing things, yelling, and being unable to calm down.

No amount of redirection or loving on him will calm him down. Instead, he just needs to ride it out on his own. 

High Needs Toddler Sleep

The Good Things About Having a High-Need Child

In addition to being difficult, he is very smart, funny, sweet, and cuddly when he’s in a good mood. Thankfully his bad spells don’t last all day.

Some days are worse than others, but for the most part, his moods cycle throughout the day. Yes, we have some hard moments, but we also have lots of fun, sweet, awesome moments.

I adore him more than life, but I am so glad he wasn’t my first child.

It will be interesting to see what this stubborn, demanding, on-the-go, hilarious child will become. While he often makes me tired, I think many of his high-need traits will serve him well in life.

If his baby and toddlerhood have been any indication, he will be outspoken, confident, funny, determined, social, and enthusiastic. I think he will go on to do great things.

Are you living with a high-needs toddler? Here, let me give you a martini. 

Resources for Raising High Need Kids

These books will help you understand and parent your high needs baby, toddler, or child

*This post was originally written in September 2013 and has been updated. 

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7 Comments

  1. Hi mom’s and dad’s:
    I’m a first time and COVID mom. My daughter is 14 months and indeed she is a high needs baby.
    I discovered the term after googling screaming baby for no apparent reason and ended up on a hospital after emergency calls with doctors telling my baby was indeed in perfect condition, twice in a month.
    The patenting is very hard, people no longer want to help. At least they’ve stopped criticizing.
    I meditate several times per day.
    My questions are :
    where is the science that explains it ?
    Should we prepare for a hell-of-puberty ?

  2. Thanks a lot for the post. My first born darling son is like this. But his tantrums are much milder. It is a tiring process. But I will not trade anything else for him as he is a cute little munchkin. For all the high need baby parents : You are doing great .

  3. I have an 8 month old boy who is high needs. I’m lucky if I get three hours of sleep a night and never uninterrupted. He won’t sleep in his crib. CIO method failed to work because of his temperament. I have no hope of things ever improving. I’m concerned that your son, all these years later, sounds like is still quite spirited and doesn’t sound like things got markedly better?

    I wish I knew what caused this. His birth? My stress level during pregnancy? Bad combo of genetics?

    We would love another child but I don’t know how I could ever have a second given my son’s temperament and the extreme sleep deprivation. And if the second one is also high needs I downright know I couldn’t survive.

    I have never felt more hopeless about anything in my life.

  4. Wow thank you for this article. I thought I was the only one. None of my friends have children like my second child who is now 3. Since the day I brought her home from the hospital, everything takes WORK and lots of it. I am always drained from her energy and constant attention. It’s a lot to deal with since we had to take her out of her part time child care which was the only real break I had. Hoping things get a little easier..

  5. I felt compelled to leave a comment which is something I never do.
    I raised a high need toddler and she is now 33 and has a daughter of her own. As I read your story it was like you were telling MY story with a few small changes. I was a single mom for the most part. Her father didn’t participate at all because she was difficult and he was more interested in doing what he wanted to do. Nobody could babysit for me. She would scream from the moment I left to the minute I got back then she was fine.
    My son was my first and like you he was so easy. I often felt guilty that I didn’t have enough left over for him because she used me all up.
    As I state she is an adult now. In her early teens she became addict to Meth and her life went into a full Maytag spin cycle. In and out of Juvenile court, Jail, rehab and eventually ended up on the streets. During this time she had 4 babies. The oldest live with her father, the second lives with my daughters father and his wife, the third is with a family that has full custody and the baby is the one that saved her life. She is now 2 and my daughter 2 + years clean and sober. She put our family through hell and as for me, I didn’t think I would survive. I waited for the phone call that thank God never came. She is a beautiful mother and has contact with all the girls now. She is working on their relationships and herself.
    She struggles with ADHD, depression, PTSD (from her life as an addict) but is an amazing human being.

    I hope the best for you and your son. I wish I could have seen into the future and given her the help she needed earlier and maybe it could have turned out differently. I’m grateful to have her in my life now but it’s been a very long hard road.

  6. Hi Reagan,
    Great to know about your high need children. I have One! It’s my first son and have been difficult managing him. He is a toddler now and i’d like to know if the things going better after 3-4 years with your son? I thought really realistic your blog.

    1. Hi Marina,

      My son is now 9 and at 3-4 he was still quite high needs. He still is even at 9, but it’s different. He is still demanding of attention and very high-energy, but since he is aware of himself more and is able to entertain himself, it has gotten better.

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