Do you have a sensitive baby?
Unless your infant is highly sensitive, it can be easy to miss signs of sensitivity. But even a small amount of sensitivity can affect a baby’s sleep and other areas of day-to-day life. For this reason, it is important to learn if your child is sensitive and understand how it is affecting them.
Do you recognize these signs, behaviors, or needs?
1. Babies who have the slightest amount of sensitivity go through sleep regressions during development, growth, and teething periods. Highly sensitive babies may even have back-to-back regressions for months at a time. Other babies go through sleep disruptions on rare occasions when they cut teeth or become ill.
2. Sensitive babies are in tune with their bodies and the way they feel, inside and out, even while they sleep. They also feel discomfort and pain more intensely than other babies do. This causes sleep disruptions during growth, development, and teething because these periods can be uncomfortable and painful for them. They may also feel wired and overstimulated at times..
When it comes to health, sensitive babies are more likely to spit up, have gas, food intolerances, allergies, and skin rashes. Since they are so in tune to how they feel, these health problems can affect moods and sleep, too.
3. Another difference in sensitive babies is the way they act when it’s time to sleep. Sensitive babies fuss when they are tired. If they get overtired, they can cry intensely and become difficult to soothe. It’s better to put them down to rest at the earliest signs of fatigue.
On the other hand, easygoing babies can drift off to sleep on their own when they are tired. Predictable babies exhibit obvious signs of tiredness and fall asleep with patting or shushing.
4. Sensitive babies crave physical contact. They love being held closely. They fall asleep when they are fed because they feel safe and at peace being cradled and soothed. They sleep deeply while they are held and wake up easily when they are laid down. It can be hard to get them to sleep in a crib, especially in another room, as they prefer a parent’s companionship. Another sign of sensitivity is that these babies need to be held to calm down when they are upset.
5. Sensitive babies cry easily and confuse their parents. Which can be challenging, because they can get worked up in a hurry and cry for long periods. Parents of sensitive babies often have to experiment with solutions to learn what triggers crying and discomfort, and this can be time consuming. When it comes to night awakenings, these babies need their parents to go to them quickly while they are calm and then feed or rock them back to sleep. It takes more energy and effort to care for them at night than other babies.
Other signs of sensitivity you might notice
1. Turning away or blinking excessively in sunlight or bright light
2. Acting upset or scared by loud noises
3. Crying for no apparent reason
4. Easily frightened
5. Crying when not attended to quickly
6. Crying during diaper changes & dressing
7. A tense & reactive body
8. Aversions to strangers, new places, or change. (They might hide, act shy, or even cry.)
9. Easily overstimulated by touch, new experiences, attention from multiple people, etc.
Insight for the journey
If you recognize some of these characteristics, you probably have a sensitive baby. This means you may experience sleep deprivation and feel desperate for better sleep at times. You may also wonder if you’re doing what’s best for your baby or if you’re creating new problems. Typical solutions may not apply to your child, which can be confusing and frustrating.
Here are a few principles that will make the parenting journey more enjoyable for you:
First, it’s important to rely on your brain, your intuition, AND your instincts while raising your sensitive baby. This will help you connect with your child, understand them, and empower you as a parent. Train your logic, heart, and gut to work together. This will take extra effort, focus, and experimentation, because we are taught to think logically from a young age. Listen to the thoughts that pop into your head, act on the ideas that come, and let go when your body or your mind jump into action. With time, these experiences will help your confidence grow as a parent, strengthen your connection with your child, and bring peace to your heart.
Second, your baby must be comforted by you to develop coping skills. Sensitive babies need their parents to comfort them more often; they are slower to learn how to handle their emotions and express themselves. Take heart in knowing that the extra attention and patience you provide will pay off. Studies show that parents have more influence on their babies and children when they require more care and support. It should be reassuring to learn that you are helping your child develop optimally in every way by being responsive, offering comfort, and teaching security.
Third, it’s normal for babies to have interrupted sleep for the first couple of years or longer. There is no one to blame for this, except nature. Sleep regressions are periods of progress. Your child must go through uncomfortable changes to become smarter and stronger, and learn and grow. Don’t ever be afraid to respond to your little one and always show compassion for them. These periods are difficult for your child, too. Find ways to endure sleep deprivation by asking for help from a loved one or hiring a night doula. Let go of the things that don’t matter and the pressure you put on yourself. Survival mode is necessary at times.
Fourth, there are ways to empower your infant to sleep well when they feel well. Sensitive babies often need support at night; it can be hard to know when they aren’t feeling well or if they are waking out of habit. You can’t solve all night awakenings, but you can improve them. Sensitive babies have their own timeline when it comes to independence and developing strong sleep habits, so traditional sleep training methods may not be a good fit for them. They do best with an approach that supports their unique needs and helps them thrive and develop optimally in every way.
Tips and insight for better sleep
The following steps could help your little one learn to self-settle and sleep well.
- Help your baby feel safe and happy in their sleep space. Make the bedroom a place where your child is at peace.
- If you can wait until your baby is not in a sleep regression, working with them will be easier on you and on them. If your child seems to always be in a regression, go ahead and begin the process when you are ready, but try to be patient.
- Teach your child independent sleep skills during naps and bedtime. Avoid stress and overstimulation by taking a break from the process at night.
- Use a method that’s sensitive to your baby’s needs and doesn’t upset or stress them out.
- Sensitive babies get fussy when they are tired and fall asleep easiest while they are held.
- Choose an affectionate, creative, intuitive approach for your baby that shows them HOW to fall asleep in their crib.
- Because sensitive babies get upset and stressed out easily, ease your child into the new routine carefully:
- Introduce the sleep method for a short time and return to the old way.
- Use the sleep method longer over time. Increase the time in short increments.
- Stay consistent with these short increments. Don’t jump ahead.
- Your 1st goal is to phase out the old habit (like feeding to sleep) and get your child to fall asleep in the crib. Offer support as you work on this.
- The 2nd goal is to teach independence.
- Remove support a little at a time (like patting or massaging).
- Step away out of sight briefly and return to your baby quickly. Do this when your child is very sleepy.
- Repeat this and lengthen out the periods when you are away, until your child falls asleep alone. (Teach them you always return and they will relax.)
Your baby’s sleep will improve if you follow these steps. Your little one will sleep well when they feel well. Remember to trust your intuition and instincts 100% of the time as you raise your sensitive child. This will give you clarity and confidence. Lastly, keep in mind that the support and responsiveness you extend will have the biggest impact on your child’s future well-being!
Meredith is a mother of five, a sleep coach, and a child-care expert. She developed the 5-Step Supported Sleep System to improve sleep for all temperament types, with 7 tear-free sleep methods. She specializes in sleep solutions for highly sensitive and spirited infants and young children. Meredith coaches mothers all over the world in short-term and long-term coaching programs, runs an agency, facilitates The Sweet Slumber Sleep Consultant Program, and hosts The Sweet Slumber Podcast.