Written by Certified Gentle Sleep Coach, Child Development and Infant Mental Health Specialist, Macall Gordon, MA. Macall is also the owner of That First Year.
From the moment my daughter was born, I knew that she was not like other babies I had seen. Instead of the fuzzy, unfocused newborn gaze, hers was like a laser beam…wide open, focused, intent. Little did I know that this would be a defining characteristic of my intense, bright, creative, empathic — did I say “intense”? — baby.
She had all the hallmarks of a spirited, alert baby. She did not “drift” into sleep; it was as if she had an on/off switch. She couldn’t or wouldn’t stay asleep for long. She was clear about what she wanted and that was almost always me. I remember when she was about 8 or 9 months old, sitting up past David Letterman with a baby who was wide awake…not at all fussy. It was 1:00 am. I knew this wasn’t right. This was not at all like the books said it would be…but here we were.
At the time (more than 20 years ago), the first edition of Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s book Your Spirited Child was relatively new. Sears’ Fussy Baby Book had yet to be published, but The Baby Book talked about “high needs babies” and that gave me some validation that this temperament style was not in my imagination or a sign that I was doing something wrong. Twenty years later, there’s only a bit more information, not a lot of research, and still no agreed upon term —but parents with one of these little handfuls tend to recognize the signs immediately.
The elements of “spiritedness”
Spirited, high-needs, and alert are terms for a cluster of traits or behaviors including curiosity, perceptiveness, persistence, and probably whip-smart intelligence. The downside of these incredible traits is that each has a dark side that can challenge parents’ patience, confidence, and stamina.
Intensity – Everything is bigger. If they’re happy, they’re really happy. Once they get upset, they take off like a rocket. These are the babies whose parents say, “If I don’t get to her in a few seconds, all bets are off.”
Upside: They know what they want and they work to get it. They are also clear about what they want. Parents don’t have to guess. These kids get their needs met.
Downside: Everything seems to be a big deal. Nothing slides off their back. For parents, it can be exhausting to either keep them calm or calm them down once they are upset.
How it affects sleep: These little ones may not adjust to new approaches or tactics regarding sleep easily. If they don’t like what you’re doing, they will let you know. For really tired parents, it can be daunting to know that things may get worse before they get better. Know that your child will react strongly to changes and that it may take longer for them to “get on board” than the books say it will. You can validate, respond and reassure your child’s intense reactions without altering your course.
Persistence – “Easy going” and “flexible” are not in their vocabulary. They can outlast you and do not give up easily on what they want. This is an amazing trait for an adult to have, but in children, it can wear parents out. This is why trying to alter sleep behavior may not take the few nights that many books or articles say it will. These little guys will fight change and won’t give up on what they want without a struggle.
Upside: See note above about getting their needs met. Ultimately, we want kids to be persistent…to not give up in the face of obstacles.
Downside: Your will has to be constantly bigger than theirs. It can be exhausting to keep at your efforts to redirect them. You may begin to feel like you lack the authority to be this child’s parent.
How it affects sleep: The same note as above applies here. Spirited kids may dig in their heels more than their easygoing counterparts. As long as you know that this is how they’re wired, you can do your best to stay consistent. Changes or alterations can really throw off these persistent kids.
Perceptiveness/Alertness – They notice everything. They pick up on emotions. They notice tiny things on the carpet or when you’ve changed something.
Upside: They are learning a tremendous amount and their perceptiveness likely means they are quite smart. These children make surprising connections and detect patterns that you may not even notice.
Downside: The challenge in all this perceptiveness is that these children don’t know when enough is enough. They may get easily over-stimulated because they don’t know how to shut down when they’ve had enough. Parents also may not know that the child has gone into an over-stimulated zone until it’s too late.
How it affects sleep: Not only do little things catch their attention, but all that noticing represents a lot of stimulation. For spirited little ones, it can be hard to know at what point they’ve gone over the edge and are now over-stimulated. Spirited kids don’t easily “shut down” when they’ve had enough; they actually can “ramp up” in response to overstimulation. It’s important to give these little guys a sensory break and make sure that sleep environments are as boring as possible.
Engaged – These little ones crave interaction. They would rather interact with you than those silly toys.
Upside: They learn so much from interaction. They are learning language and they are bonding with a human (instead of a toy) — building a relationship.
Downside: They have trouble playing or being by themselves. Parents are the main playmate and that can be exhausting.
How it affects sleep: Some research has found that sleep problems occur in parents who are the best at interacting with their baby. For spirited babies, they crave interacting with you. When they rouse from sleep, they seem to want more of that. For some spirited babies, just your physical presence is enough to trigger them into wanting interaction. Some have found that leaving the room for brief periods is actually better for these little guys. While others have found that staying and moving out slowly is essential.
Particular temperament challenges to sleep
Irregularity – There’s no reliable pattern to feeding, sleep, or activity. They do things differently every day. One night, they may sleep well and parents think “Well, A, B, and C really worked!” Then, the next night, even though they took the same steps, the baby is up every 90 minutes.
Difficulty with self-soothing/self-regulation – They need a lot of help calming down or transitioning into and out of sleep. Parents often have to very actively help these little guys with calming down and may need to intervene before they get too upset. This is where the books don’t speak well to parents of spirited kids. Parents may worry that they’re “helicoptering” and preventing their child from managing frustration…but these spirited kids do need more help. Parents may have to experiment with how much frustration their child can manage at a time. For spirited kids, it may be only a small amount.
Difficulty with going to sleep and staying asleep – Their perceptiveness and sensitivity mean that they attend to every little sound and texture. Their desire for interaction means that they don’t let go of it easily and they want it again the minute they wake. Their difficulty with regulation means that they don’t drift in and out of sleep — they go directly from asleep to awake, which also means that parents have to start all over at every night waking.
What “Spiritedness” May Also Be And How It Can Affect Sleep
Sensory sensitivity – Spirited kids may have a variety of sensitivities that can contribute to both fussiness and sleeplessness. Sensitivity to textures, noises, or sensations can really interfere with sleep (and everything else). Some spirited kids are “sensory seeking,” which means they need more of a certain kind of stimulation to calm down – pressure on their bodies, swinging, being upside down. Parents who think their child might have a particular sensitivity may benefit from the book Understanding Your Baby’s Sensory Signals (by Angie Voss).
GI Distress (reflux, food sensitivities) – When they’re little, it’s tough to know where all the fussiness is coming from. Reflux in babies can result in a LOT of fussiness and problems with sleeping that may masquerade as alert or spirited behavior. If your baby does a lot of arching or seems in pain after eating, you may want to ask your pediatrician about potential reflux or other food sensitivities.
Sleep Deprivation – A too-tired kid can also look like a high needs/fussy child. Alert children actually need more sleep and a more structured routine. Sometimes, just getting better sleep results in a reduction or complete disappearance of the “high needs”.
Experiences Of Parents
Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Raising Your Spirited Child, Third Edition: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic“>Raising Your Spirited Child and Sleepless in America, conducted her dissertation research on the experiences of parents of spirited infants and found that they can feel overwhelmed, discouraged, and even incompetent. These children throw big curve balls at parents and require a higher level of skill from them. Parents of spirited babies also report that existing advice about sleep and behavior doesn’t apply or work. Many parents who come to sleep coaching have spirited babies and it’s not difficult to understand why they are having sleep difficulties.
Parents Effect on Spirited Babies
Jumping ship too soon: Desperation and frustration may also result in trying too many things too quickly. (All the parenting advice out there doesn’t help either.) Whatever you are going to try, you need to commit to sticking with it for a period of time.
Anxiety or Depression: Spiritedness takes a toll on parents. Feelings of inadequacy, worry that there’s something wrong with their child, and sleep deprivation can all result in elevated levels of anxiety and depression. Further, because your child is also sensitive, they pick up on your feelings. Sometimes, just getting support can help parents calm themselves and be better able to know what steps to take next.
Your own temperament: Parents sometimes need to look at their own spiritedness. Understanding in what way you are intense or sensitive can also help you understand your baby. Do you have problems falling asleep? Are you easily awakened by sounds? Are you very sensitive to textures?
Understanding both the upside and downside of spiritedness and knowing that you’re not alone can go a long way to preventing burnout and even depression. Parents of spirited babies and toddlers especially benefit from support – either from a coach, support group or friends with spirited little ones. Spirited kids present a tough beginning for their parents, but these are the kids who are creative, divergent, empathetic, and intelligent beyond their years. It’s a package deal. While I wish I had learned earlier how to manage my little intense ones, I wouldn’t trade who they are now for the world.
The Fussy Baby Site (2015). High Need Baby Survey (An internet survey of over 1,400 parents). Available from: http://www.thefussybabysite.com
Kurcinka, M. S. (2011). Raising a Spirited Infant: Parents’ Reactions and Responses to Sleep, Self-Regulation and Temperament Related Behaviors. (Doctoral Dissertation). Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Kurcinka, M. S. (2015). Raising Your Spirited Child, Third Edition: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic. New York: William Morrow. (Raising Your Spirited Child)
Sears, W., & Sears, M. (1996). The Fussy Baby Book: Parenting Your High-Need Child From Birth to Age Five. New York: Little Brown. (The Fussy Baby Book)
Thomas, A., & Chess, S. (1977). Temperament and development. Oxford, England: Brunner/Mazel. Article based on the book available here: http://www.acamedia.info/sciences/sciliterature/origin_of_personality.htm
Voss, A. (OT). Sensory Preference Checklist. http://asensorylife.com/sensory-preference-checklist.html
The Fussy Baby Network (http://www.erikson.edu/fussybaby/national-network/). In several states, The Fussy Baby Network provides in-home consultation/evaluation.
Gentle Sleep Coaches – Kim West’s directory of trained sleep coaches who can help take temperament into account and craft a sleep plan (http://sleeplady.com/coaches/)
Fussy Baby Site (http://www.fussybabysite.com) – Parent-to-parent support, articles, etc.