How Do I Know If I Have a High Need Baby?

Newborn Baby On A Green Blanket

Today we have a guest post from Holly Klassen, Founder and Editor of The Fussy Baby Site.

Having a baby can be exhausting. But having a baby who cries and fusses frequently, and has major troubles sleeping, feeding and/or getting into any kind of routine? That takes exhaustion to a whole new level.

If this sounds familiar, it may be that you have a high need baby. If you’re not familiar with this term, here’s a brief rundown of some of the most common traits of high need babies:

  • They need extra attention, holding and soothing to keep from crying
  • They may seem generally unhappy or discontent…particularly as newborns
  • Their feeding and sleeping habits may be irregular and unpredictable (eating every hour, sleeping in short spurts, etc.)
  • Their reactions to everyday discomforts are extreme. For instance, instead of fussing because they’re hungry, they scream at the top of their lungs

‘High needs’ is simply a way of describing these little ones who are more intense, more persistent and less predictable. It is NOT a medical diagnosis.

So, how do you know if your baby is high need, or if something else is going on? Keep reading.

What’s the difference between colic and high needs?

You’re likely already familiar with the official definition of colic: unexplained crying for at least 3 hours a day, at least 3 days a week, lasting 3 weeks or more. Colic typically starts rearing its ugly ahead at 2-3 weeks of age. You may see the crying peak at 6 weeks, and it typically goes away by 3-4 months (up to 5 months for an unlucky few).

Generally speaking, a healthy newborn who is otherwise content – apart from these isolated crying episodes – will be diagnosed with colic.*

High needs’, on the other hand, is quite different. In the 1950’s, researchers who were investigating temperament in infants found that around 10% of babies were born “difficult”. They were more intense, less adaptable and less predictable in terms of eating and sleeping. Dr. Sears later termed these babies “high need”.

To be honest, it can be difficult or even impossible to tell the difference between a newborn who is high need, and one who is colicky. However, there are a few commonalities I’ve seen in working with both groups of kids for the past 8.5 years:

  • High need babies are often fussy/discontent right from birth (about half the time)
  • They tend to exhibit high need characteristics all day, not just for a few hours in the evenings (as is often the case with colic)
  • They do not outgrow their fussiness at 3-4 months, as is the case with colic (although their fussiness can decrease significantly as they get older and learn new skills)

*Sometimes a food allergy or a condition like reflux can be misdiagnosed as colic or high needs. Be sure to consult your physician if you’re unsure.

So, if I have a high need baby, are we doomed forever?

I’ll be honest with you.

Having a high need baby is hard. REALLY hard.

The first few months can be among the most challenging, and you may feel frustrated, resentful, anxious or depressed. This is probably not what you expected when you imagined being a parent. You may feel inadequate as a parent, and the sleep-deprivation may make you feel like you’re losing your mind.


There’s also good news about having a high need baby.

While high need babies may be more challenging than other babies, they are NOT biologically different when it comes to sleep. This means that traditional methods of sleep training DO work for high need babies. That said, don’t be surprised if it takes longer, and if your baby protests more vehemently than other babies (although surprisingly, this isn’t always the case!).

Finally, with warm, flexible parenting, high need babies grow up to the strongest, most sensitive kids and adults. You may need to adjust your expectations, or adopt parenting styles you may never have considered….but the rewards are so worth it. I’m convinced these are the kids who end up becoming the next generation of leaders!

About the Author

Holly Klaassen is the founder and editor of The Fussy Baby Site. The site, started in 2007, provides support to parents of fussy, colicky and high need babies and toddlers. She has also written a free eBook for parents called 6 Sleep Tips For High Need Babies and Toddlers.

Be sure to check out some additional tips and information from Holly how to help calm a high need baby in our article Decoding Your Fussy Baby.

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