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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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Unsatisfied | High-need toddlers can be hard to please. They will want one thing, then change their minds on a dime.
- Unpredictable | One minute, they are the sweetest, funniest child on the face of the planet, and bam! The next minute, complete meltdown.
- Super-sensitive | High-need children are very alert to changes in their environment, especially sudden ones.
- 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.
- Not self-soothing | High-need babies need to be soothed by their caregivers often and cannot “calm down” on their own.
- 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.
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.
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
*This post was originally written in September 2013 and has been updated.