No rest for the weary:
Why is sleep so difficult for spirited babies?
by Macall Gordon, M.A.
What’s a “spirited baby”? If you have one, you know. 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”? --- little girl. She had all the hallmarks of a spirited, alert baby:
She had no “sleepy signals” – she just kept going
She did not “drift” into sleep (it was as if she had an on/off switch) and couldn’t or wouldn’t stay asleep for long
·She was very 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 o’clock in the morning. This wasn’t normal…and not at all like those peaceful Pampers ads I kept seeing… and yet, 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 recognize the signs immediately.
The elements of spiritedness
“Spirited” “high needs” “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.
Intense – 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 that 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. 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’re 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.
Persistent – “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 advice in 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. So, pick what you can do and stick with it.
Perceptive/Alert – They notice everything. They pick up on emotions. They notice tiny things on the carpet, or the tiniest noise outside the bedroom door.
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: Perceptive children don’t (and can’t) know when enough is enough. They can 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 when 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. Surprisingly, they actually need more sleep than other kids. Keep their awake windows on the short side and give them a sensory break by making 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).
Downside: They have trouble playing or being by themselves.
How it affects sleep: When spirited babies rouse from sleep, they seem to want to continue their interacting. For some spirited babies, just your physical presence is enough to trigger them. Some have found that leaving the room for brief periods is actually better; while others suggest staying and moving out slowly.
Irregular – There’s no reliable pattern to feeding, sleep, 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 thought they took the same steps, the baby is up every 90 minutes. Parental consistency is absolutely key to getting spirited babies on track.
Not a self-soother – 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.
Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of 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 require more energy and a higher level of skill from parents. Parents of spirited babies also report that existing advice about sleep and behavior just doesn’t apply or work. Many, many parents who come to sleep coaching have spirited babies and it’s not difficult to understand why.
Things to bear in mind:
Jumping ship too soon: Desperation and frustration may also result in trying too many things to 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, 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 textures or sounds?
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 may especially benefit from support – either from a coach or support group or even friends with spirited little ones. Spirited kids represent a tough “row to hoe” for parents, but these are the kids who are also creative, divergent, empathetic, and intelligent beyond their years. It’s sort of a package deal. Looking back, while I wish I had known more at the time about 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).
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.
Sears, W., & Sears, M. (1996). The Fussy Baby Book: Parenting Your High-Need Child From Birth to Age Five. New York: Little Brown.
Thomas, A., & Chess, S. (1977). Temperament and development. Oxford, England: Brunner/Mazel. Article based on the book available here:
Voss, A. (OT). Sensory Preference Checklist.
Additional Resources The Fussy Baby 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.