Spirited Babies

BK’s Mumma Says…


Babies that were never meant to be babies. I read that statement recently and thought it summed up BK completely. It took me six months before I discovered that BK was a spirited, sometimes referred to as high-needs or fussy baby. For the previous  months, I had begun to think that I was doing something wrong, that my parenting was off-beam. BK didn’t seem to be like other babies that I knew and I always seemed to be so exhausted. I’m not talking about new-mum exhausted but an exhaustion born of there never being any let up in groans, mumbles, cries and carrying. It helped me to read what  Mary Sheedy Kurcinka said in the opening paragraph of her book ‘Raising Your Spirited Child’. She says this,

“The Word that distinguishes spirited children from other children is more. They are normal children who are more intense, persistent, sensitive, perceptive, and uncomfortable with change than other children. All children possess these characteristics, but spirited kids possess them with a depth and range not available to other children. Spirited kids are the Super Ball in a room of rubber balls. Other kids bounce three feet off the ground. Every bounce for a spirited child hits the ceiling.”

When describing BK’s spirited-ness to other people, I’ve heard them say things like, ‘isn’t that all babies?’ Well, yes, to some extent I agree. As Kurcinka says, all babies and children possess a few of these characteristics, it’s just that spirited babies tend to display a lot of them most of the time. It is, after all, an indication of their personality, which will be with them their whole-life. These characteristics, which for some babies wane after a few weeks or months, stay with a spirited baby. They may morph, perhaps get a little less intense as they develop, but ultimately, they are what they are. BK is who she is.


So, what are these characteristics that denote a spirited baby?

Dr Sears (http://www.askdrsears.com/), a well-regarded Paediatrician from America and father of eight children (three of whom were high-needs) was especially helpful in helping me determine why BK seemed to be sooooo exhausting. He uses 12 features to indicate if your baby is spirited and as I read these indicators, I practically ticked off every one of them!


  • Intense

The second night after BK was born should really have been an indicator to me of her personality. The wisdom of hindsight! That night she cried, and cried and cried some more. Not just whimpers but full pelt crying that went on and on and got louder the longer her need wasbkan’t met.  If I fed her, she nestled herself into my breast and suckled her little heart out. Once asleep, I gently popped her in the bedside crib and tried to lie down and get some sleep myself, only that great plan was to no avail. Pretty much as soon as I had put her down she began to cry, so I picked her back up and began the whole process again. This continued for much of the night. If I had had the confidence to lay her beside me, I would have done, but that was not recommended and as a new mumma, I felt like I needed to adhere to recommended advice.  BK, from the word go, always let me know when she was dissatisfied with something. Her moans and grumbles would be loud and incessant until I picked her up, fed her, cuddled her, changed what we were doing, or gave her something new to do.


  • Hyperactive

This isn’t in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder kind of a way but is more of a description of what she is like. I realised Bethia had this trait when it came to pushing her around in the pram. She would be content in the pram for around 5 -10 minutes but after that it was like she suddenly realised that she wasn’t being held and would begin the groaning and crying (yes, you’ve guessed it, getting louder and more persistent the longer I left it) to let me know she wasn’t happy. Several people suggested trying to ‘Baby Wear’, putting her in a sling, but this usually lasted for a similar length of time with her too. It may work for many babies, but for BK, I quickly discovered she hated being contained. While many mums get to take their little bundles of joy shopping, take them to the park, walk around their neighbourhood, for me I had to time our outings. If they lasted longer than 20 minutes, BK would likely be in meltdown and I would feel like melting down too! BK didn’t like being in the car seat either, often crying if the movement stopped (at traffic lights, whilst stuck in traffic etc). Trips out in the car weren’t one of those last resort resources we used to get her to sleep if all else failed, like many parents!


As soon as BK discovered she could wriggle and move, breastfeeding became a whole new ball game. I can honestly say that she became a gymnast overnight! She would be feeding contentedly and then get distracted by a noise or something touching her. She would wriggle and squirm, arching her back, stiffening her limbs, often taking my nipple with her (very painful!). Having not discovered that BK was spirited at this point, I just thought this was normal as babies grew and became more mobile.


  • Draining

Dr Sears encourages the term ‘giving’ rather than draining as he sees this as baby needing your constant attention for a period of time. He says that draining can sound like you are wasting time but by investing time in your baby you are building up a strong and solid bond.


BK did, at times, feel exhausting. It felt like she had to be held all the time, which made going to the loo rather interesting at times! Some days (usually when she was going through a development leap) she would just grumble even if she was being held. I can only say that I got through these days with a lot of support from my husband. Knowing he was coming home and I could hand her over for a bit of ‘me’ time (usually cooking dinner – it’s funny what ‘me’ time looks like once you’ve had a baby) helped no end! Dr Sears describes these times as a transferring of your energy to your baby to help them thrive. Thinking of it this way helped me to persevere and look at what I was doing as something positive rather than negative.


  • Feeds Frequently

I fed BK on demand, as recommended by the NHS. Initially this seemed to work well. BK would feed around every 2 hours. Then, around 8 weeks, BK started to grumble and cry more. No matter what we did, nothing seemed to work, apart from breastfeeding. Offering her the breast seemed to be a winner. I didn’t force it on her, but offered it just to see if she was hungry. I had seen a friend who is a more experienced mumma do this with her 11 month old so thought I’d give it a go too. It worked! BK seemed to thrive on suckling. She wasn’t always hungry, she just needed to comfort suck and she did this a lot, night and day (I probably fed her around 15-20 times a day, most of which were at night). She went from being just under the 25th centile to just under the 91st centile in a little over 2 months.

bkdResearch seems to suggest that a baby can’t become overweight whilst breastfeeding as the body adapts the caloric value of the breastmilk it produces, so if BK was only needing a comfort suck, she only received the low-end calorie milk. As she has got older and more mobile, I have noticed her weight gain lessen as she is using up those stored calories to move around.


  • Demanding

BK is without doubt a demanding baby. As previously explained, when she wants something, she lets me know.

bkeShe grumbles, groans or cries loudly and incessantly until her need is met. It helped me to know that she isn’t doing this to manipulate me but rather that she knows her own mind, knows what she likes and wants and isn’t afraid to express it. She has a strong personality and this isn’t going to change throughout her life, but how I respond to her, how I help her to express her needs as she grows, will determine what kind of person she becomes – hopefully compassionate and self-aware.


  • Awakens Frequently and Not a Self-Soother (2 of Dr Sears features)

BK used to sleep well at night. I would put her down in her Moses basket at the side of our bed and by 3 months old, she was sleeping ‘through the night’ (technically that is. By that I mean she was sleeping for 6 hours without waking for a feed). Then she hit the 4 month development leap and sleeping well disappeared into a dim and distant memory. She suddenly started to wake after her first sleep cycle and then again after that one, and then again after that one, and so on throughout the night. For 4 weeks I struggled on, picking her out of her crib, feeding her, rocking her, putting her back and then trying to get myself back to sleep again. Some people had suggested that this would be a phase that would last a couple of weeks but those weeks came and went and BK continued her new routine. After a month, I decided that the only way I would get any kind of sleep myself was to co-sleep, so that is what we did and we have co-slept ever since.


Without doubt, this has been the most challenging part of motherhood for me. BK still at times wakes every 45-60 minutes, sometimes more, needing to suck for comfort. Leaving her to cry it out doesn’t work because she’s spirited, which means she is persistent in her crying, won’t settle and doesn’t really comply with the theory behind ‘cry it out’. She never took to using a dummy either as she much prefers the real thing (another trait of spirited babies). So instead, allowing her to feed and suck when she wants was pretty much the only thing left to me. From what I’ve read, she is likely to take longer to wean because she likes the comfort of the breast, but with time, she will be able to soothe herself back to sleep. She will grow up knowing that sleeping is a peaceful, safe time and that she can put her trust in me being there whenever she needs me. It took me a while, but I have adjusted to BKs needs in this area, and though she wakes often, I view this time as precious. She will only be a baby once and all too soon it will be gone.


  • Unsatisfied

No matter what I did, how I did it, when I did it, where I did it, some days BK would not settle or cease to grumble or cry. Those days were very draining and left me feeling like I was failing as a mumma. I couldn’t do anything to soothe her. It felt even worse for me because as soon as my husband returned, she seemed to settle. He just had a way with her. I am very grateful for his ability to distract her, calm her and rock her. Where I had been trying tirelessly for hours, he would be able to work his magic in less than ten minutes. Babies can pick up on tension and on those days I felt tense so it was no wonder that she was unable to settle. I was also later reassured that spirited babies are often unable to be satisfied no matter what you do. In the end, I just learned to ride the storm. Thankfully, as she has become more mobile and independent, her days of being unsatisfied have decreased (although haven’t disappeared completely).


  • Unpredictable

It often felt like I was starting every day from scratch with BK. One day I would find something that helped her to settle and so repeat the process the day after but suddenly, that golden technique that it may have taken me hours to find, no longer worked again! One day she would be ok going for a walk in the pram, and perhaps it might help her get to sleep. The very next day, even with every other external process repeated, she would scream and cry within minutes of going into the pram. I have become a master at different distraction techniques and have what feels like an overflowing tool box of resources I can fall back on for those days when yesterday’s technique fails to work. Even now, some mummas I see take maybe one or two toys to distract their one year old but for BK, it needs to be a bag full of toys. The toy she loved so much yesterday is frequently the one that gets hurled to the floor today!


  • Super-Sensitive and Separation Sensitive (2 features for Dr Sears)

I have read that putting on the vacuum when your newborn is asleep helps them feel as if they are in the womb again; it mimics the sounds that they are used to for 9 months prior. With BK though, putting on the vacuum woke her. So did laughing loudly, talking loudly, sneezing, a knock at the door, pretty much most sounds. We learnt very quickly to tiptoe around her in order to encourage her to sleep longer. I have since discovered that this is because BK is super-sensitive to environments and change.

 bkgAt around 8 weeks, a big change occurred, possibly linking into the developmental leap that occurs around that time. BK suddenly went from being content at being held by other people, to hating being held by others, including grandparents. To begin with I thought this was just a phase. People kept telling me that after 3 months she would settle down. However, 3 months came and went and so did 4 months. No change. She just wouldn’t be held by anyone. This was really difficult for doting grandparents and exhausting for me, who couldn’t put her down or give her to anybody even to get a break  (other than her dad, which was a life-saver. Some spirited babies won’t even go to dad!). Even now, at a year old, BK still picks and chooses who she will go to and for how long. She is quite content with being played with on the floor, but struggles to be cuddled by others.

My hope lies in the fact that many sensitive babies apparently grow up to be discerning, empathetic adults who genuinely care for others. Whilst this season has been a challenge for us, BK and for grandparents and friends, knowing that with the right nurture she will grow up to have this kind of character helps me to understand what is going on with her at this stage of her development.


  • Can’t put baby down

BK has always loved to be a babe-in-arms. Once I realised that she would always wake up after I put her down for a nap no matter what I did, I cradled her to sleep and let her sleep in my arms for her naps during the daytime. BK just would not be put down. She hated anytime alone on her back or tummy for months, sometimes managing only seconds at a time. She enjoyed around 5 minutes at a time in the bouncer and we discovered that she would go longer if we were bouncing it like there was no tomorrow. With this in mind, we bought an automatic bouncer, but she hated that! So we were back to bouncing manually or cuddling her. I had a narrow window in which I could shower and change and many days shaving my legs was low on the priority list just so that I could get my clothes on before she began to cry! Whilst some spirited babies would love to be in the sling, BK did not take to this at all, so my husband and I spent many, many hours holding her and moving around with her. I found muscles I never knew existed but it seemed to work until she was able to crawl (around 9 months) when she didn’t need us to cuddle her quite as much!


Please don’t misunderstand me. I have focussed on the more challenging aspects of BKs personality rather than the many, many things that have felt less overwhelming. I never dreamed that my little bundle of joy would be such a big personality (although personality is apparently genetic, which given that her dad and I are both up there on the spirited spectrum isn’t really that surprising). Of course I, like many mummas, imagined their baby to be a text book baby needing little input from me, would coo and suckle easily, sleep well (after all she would know how much her mumma needed her sleep) and would be cuddled and rocked by everyone she saw. Adjusting to her actual real-life personality took many months and was a steep learning curve. It has been my utter and complete love for her that has meant I have not given up on her and have gone the extra mile for her time and time again. And knowing what I know now, seeing how she is changing and developing, the way she interacts, communicates, smiles, kisses, the way she makes me laugh and fills my heart to overflowing, I have no doubt at all that I would do it all again. Spirited babies may be completely exhausting, but they are totally and utterly worth every ounce of energy you put into them.



Recommended Reading

Dr Sears The Fussy Baby Book (2009) Dr W and M Sears

Raising your Spirited Child (2010) Mary Sheeda Kurckina



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