11 Sleep tips for the high-need child

  • Lifestyle
  • Monday, 15 Oct 2012

A high-need baby is the one who never seems to want to sleep and screams the loudest in the nursery. - Reuters photo

High-need a.k.a. spirited a.k.a. intense child. If you have one, you’ll know it. He’s the loudest baby in the nursery; the one who sits in one place only if held down by a safety harness; the one who never, ever seems to sleep.

If you’d like to be sure, check out Ask Dr Sears for the definition of a high-need child at www.askdrsears.com/topics/fussy-baby/high-need-baby/12-features-high-need-baby.

My first child, J, is a high-need child. These are the things I’ve learned in my neverending battle for sleep (his and mine). It’s by no means an exhaustive list, just what works for J through trial and error, and lots and lots of reading.

Note that these tips are to be used in addition to the basic sleep tips for “regular” kids, already highlighted here.

Tip #1: Accept that he’s different

Do not be swayed by your friends’ stories of how their four-month-old baby now sleeps through the night thanks to the “cry-it-out” method. That does not work at all with a high-need baby, and he’ll end up hurting himself (at two weeks old, mine could angrily kick his way to get stuck in the bedding at the top of the cot) or you’ll be crying with him till dawn.

You can try getting him attached to a pacifier or “lovie” – like a smelly stuffed animal or his favourite pillow – to help ease himself back to sleep at night. But, you may find the only “lovie” he's willing to accept is YOU. He doesn’t like substitutes.

High-need kids are simply wired differently from other kids. The quicker you accept that, the faster you can look for what winds him up, and what can wind him down.

Tip #2: Planning is paramount

Imagine that sleep is like switch. For a high-need child, that switch is a very, very loose one that flips “ON” at the slightest touch, but takes a lot of effort to flip back to “OFF.”

It takes a lot of time and effort to wind them down for sleep, so you should schedule your day with enough buffer time before bed to allow them to wind down.

For J, we usually need two hours from the start of the bedtime routine to actual eye-shut, so our eyes are always on the clock when we are out and about. We do not sit around for “just one more” drink, or let something in a shop catch our eye at the last minute. We are aware of the time we must leave for home, and are militant about scheduling our activities to ensure it happens. There is little room for flexibility.

Tip #3: Where to sleep?

Very likely, his favourite place would be next to you. The high-need child loves his parents to bits and wants to be near them. All. The. Time. Also, they are terrible sleepers who wake very often throughout the night, so it’s less disruptive to your own sleep if you can just reach over to cuddle him back to sleep … if he’ll let you. Some need more vigorous rocking that I have come to know as the sleep “dance,” or the “mummy-no-sleep-dance.”

My high-need child now sleeps in his own room, but can only sleep through the night if one of us is next to him. There are some bad weeks where I don’t see my husband’s face for days at a stretch, because he’s in there all night with J, while I’m in the other room breastfeeding our other son to sleep.

To ensure the health of our marriage and sanity, my hubby runs back to our room once J is asleep to enjoy a few blissful hours of couple time and a quick snooze before J’s first waking. After which, my hubby goes back to J’s room to sleep with him for the rest of the night.

Tip #4: Sleep begets sleep

High-need kids are always on overdrive. They fight naptime with the same intensity that they do with everything else, then sleep so little (mine has never slept the requisite three hours) and wake at the slightest provocation (the click of keys on a computer keyboard).

You start to wonder if you should shorten the afternoon nap, or skip it altogether, so he falls asleep more easily at night. Don’t; he needs that nap.

If he wakes up after 30 minutes when he usually sleeps an hour, put him back to sleep (if you can)! Missing naps makes him prone to catastrophic meltdowns way before bedtime and he becomes too overtired to fall asleep at night.

Even if he does pass out from exhaustion, he will wake again shortly after, wailing or agitated, and getting him back to sleep will be a gargantuan task.

Schedule your day around his naps, not the other way around!

Tip #5: Lots of motion

Like every infant, high-need children like motion. It calms them. But, as with everything else, they just require a whole lot more of it. You’ve got to move harder, higher, faster and much longer with a high-need child. If you see a parent being glared at by passersby for violently bouncing her baby to sleep, it’s likely her baby is a high-need one.

People used to comment that J would get brain damage from our usual exhausting 45-minute sleep “dance,” but I ignore them because if I was any gentler, he would start screaming again, and they would not be the ones who had to “dance” another 45 minutes. I did try a bouncer, but he needed so much rocking the spring broke, so I took that as a sign that I needed the exercise.

Tip #6: Forget baby-wearing in Malaysia

Dr Sears promotes “wearing” them in a sling all day long, as this helps keep the high-need child calm and easier to put to sleep. But in this climate, the sling just causes overheating! My kids have never liked being carried in them because they end up drenched in my sweat and theirs, even in air-conditioning. J is already ultra-sensitive, and he needs to be comfortable to sleep – not sticky and smelly. I only use it when my arms have no strength left, since all my energy’s gone to my legs to “dance” him to sleep.

Tip #7: Catch them before they are fully awake

This is what puts parents on edge if you have a high-need child. Even when they’re sleeping you can never relax, because you have learned that it is imperative to put him back to sleep within the first 5 seconds of his waking, or he will not go back to sleep and you will have to do the “dance” again.

During his naps, I could not do any chores that took more than 20 minutes, because that’s all the peace I’d get before he might start to awaken and I had to make a mad dash for his bed to put him back to sleep. If I wanted him to get his full-measure of sleep, the baby monitor was either super-glued to my hip or I had to be in the same room as J.

Tip #8: Let there be no light

Remove the usual offenders like sugar, caffeine and exercise two hours before bedtime. But, due to his spirited nature, he has extra difficulty winding down for bed and those will not be enough.

With modern lighting, his little body is tricked into believing that the sun is still up, so it keeps itself humming and ready for action. His body must be allowed to register that it is dark, so the body functions can shift into lower gear in preparation for sleep. Do not take him for a walk in a shopping complex or supermarket when it’s close to bedtime.

This also applies to electronic items. No TV, iPads, iPods or any form of electronic entertainment before bed, because aside from the stimulation they provide, they also emit enough light or images to trick the body into thinking it’s still daytime.

If you want to kill time before bed, encourage him to play quietly, with puzzles or reading.

Tip #9: Transitional activities

High-need kids need this more than any other, because their bodies are moving so much they often miss their own internal triggers for tiredness and are reliant on external sources to show them that it’s time to slow down.

Whatever their routine, high-need kids need a transitional activity to indicate that it’s time to change gears to sleep, and it is the one part of the routine that can never be missed. It could be a warm bath or even a prayer that you say to him before you kiss him goodnight.

For J, when we’re in bed, I rattle off the names of people who love him, and he knows it means no more talk after that, and it’s eyes-shut time.

Tip #10: Watch out for milestones

Growth spurts and milestones. These will blow up all your well-laid plans or routines, because nothing seems to work when these fellas are in play. When they achieve a milestone like being able to walk, or roll over, they will be too busy practising it at night to sleep through it.

Make sure you read up on when all their expected growth spurts are (e.g. two years, two and a half years, three years, and so on) and plan to have no sleep for the six weeks before and after those dates.

When J was approaching his third year, it took us almost three hours to put him to sleep every night. Twenty minutes for the bedtime routine, and two and a half hours of non-stop patting in his bed till eyes-shut. It was horrible.

Tip #11: Love him

He’s especially sensitive, so if you’re angry at him or had disciplined him earlier that evening, he needs lots of reassurance that he’s still loved. Only when he feels secure and calm enough can he have a restful sleep.

Sometimes, I get so angry at J when he takes so long to fall asleep, it gets counter-productive because he gets upset that I’m angry and it takes him even longer to fall asleep.


Putting your high-need child to sleep sometimes feels like trying to cross a mine-field with a hyperactive puppy. Just when you think you’ve figured out the best way to do it, the puppy bounds off in another direction, forcing you to follow it and figure out another.

The learning is constant. You’re always kept on your toes.

But there is hope. It does get easier as they get older. I do not have to “dance” anymore because J’s old enough to lie in bed quietly, but I do have to discern whether he prefers me to pat his bum-bum or stroke his back, or if he prefers daddy that night. His preferences change from time to time. We’ve just got to keep figuring him out.

They’re not called high-need kids for nothing!

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