For the first three months of their lives my three sons cried a lot. My eldest, like clockwork, cried between 7pm and 10pm each and every night. The rest of the time he struggled to settle for sleeps in his bed, only being able to sleep when he was held in our arms, upright. His brother was the same, but he cried for longer periods consistently and also wouldn’t (couldn’t) sleep unless he was in my arms or, because we got cleverer, in a baby carrier. It was put down to colic or stomach cramps.
My third son had reflux and couldn’t lie on his back to sleep for any extended period for the first six months of his life. It was so bad that sleep deprivation put me back in hospital just days after giving birth.
However, third time around I had already learnt a valuable parenting lesson; a high needs baby is what it is. There is no changing it. No amount of sleep training makes one bit of difference. Going with the flow, meeting needs, is the only way to go.
But it was a hard lesson to learn. Learning the lesson meant going through a steep learning curve. I eventually learnt that deviating from a routine that actually worked meant days of unrest before we got back on track. It meant days of hysterical crying and fussiness. It meant sleepless nights, missed feedings. It meant tears from all sides.
Eventually we learnt to turn down family evening birthday celebration invitations because it just wasn’t worth the disruption and the aftermath. It meant conflict with my in-laws who felt our eldest son should be able to cope with the change of environments and break in routines to suit their social invitations. They wanted us to put him down to sleep at their house, then wake him to take him home when the party finished and then settle him again in his own bed when we got home. We refused. We knew our own child. Suggestions were made that there was something wrong with our son – his cousin moved from one house to another with unpredictable sleeping arrangements and routines with no problem and our son should be able to do the same.
It meant standing up for what my sons needed at that time, even as babies and toddlers. It meant learning to trust my instinct. It meant learning not to compare one child with another. It meant casting aside ‘loved ones’ who judged us and insisted on my family changing to accommodate their needs without any willingness on their side to do the same for us.
I recently read a comment on a parenting forum that made my toes curl. It was in response to a mother’s plea for advice. I could relate to a fellow mother’s inner struggles, conflicted by her in-law’s expectations and what she knew was best for her baby. Her choice was disrupt her sensitive baby’s routine for a meal at a family member’s house and pick up the pieces for days after or stay home and face the family wrath. She knew that going at a time that didn’t fit with her baby’s routine would result in a sleepless night or two, and sleep deprivation was already an issue. If you parent a HSC then chances are you have been in this situation. Chances are you have had the same dilemma. Family pressure is strong. Conflict is often one wrong action away.
So often understanding is absent. Which brings me back to the comment I read that made my toes curl – a statement that not taking the baby to the family meal would create an inflexible child that couldn’t deal with change.
And there, in one little sentence, is the crux of what parents of HSCs deal with on a regular basis. The suggestion that a baby, a few months old, should conform to the world around them. The suggestion that there is something wrong with a baby or child that needs structure, predictability and familiarity to stay calm. The suggestion that a mother should have to make choices that she knows will have a detrimental effect on her child and her family life for days after just to keep the peace.
As a first time mother I bowed to this sort of pressure; I began to believe my baby should be able to go with the flow. Luckily for my eldest son, and for me, I learnt quickly that it simply wasn’t true. Some children need quiet, they need structure and routine. Others don’t. It is as simple as that. A child is sensitive by nature. Not created. Not made by having their young needs met. Sometimes it’s best to close our ears, listen to our heart, and trust our instinct.
Our job as parents of highly sensitive children is to help them cope with a world that is certainly not ideal for sensitive people. It is our job to help them learn which tools they can use to forge a way in this world that values anything but sensitivity.
Third time around I feel no need to bow to any pressure around me for my children to conform to other people’s expectations. They do not have to bend so far they break just to fit in with someone else’s plans. I don’t absorb that pressure any more. I defend, fiercely defend, who my sons are and what they need to feel comfortable with who they are. I won’t allow friends or family to force a change upon them to be something they are not. I want them to learn how to live as square pegs in round holes, rather than be forced to smooth down their edges, disguise who they are, in order to fit in the roundness of holes they didn’t ask to be put into.
The one thing I have learnt as a parent of highly sensitive children is that acceptance is the greatest gift I can give them.