I’ve said so many times how difficult I found that first year of motherhood. I remember coming home from the hospital, dazed and pretty terrified at having a brand new baby that we were responsible for. And that daze pretty much continued for the first six months in the same way – a blur of sleep deprivation and crying (both from me and from Max).
He would cry when he was hungry, he’d cry when he was put down, he’d cry when you were changing his nappy, and he’d cry when he was tired (which was most of the time, as he didn’t exactly embrace the concept of sleep). I’d spend those lonely nighttime hours desperately searching on my phone to try to work out what might be wrong with him. I’d ask health visitors and the doctor, “why does my baby cry so much?”, only to be told that it’s normal for babies to cry. Going through it all again with a second I can see now how unusual it was for him to cry that much. But he was my first baby, and not only that, I didn’t have close friends with babies to compare him to, other than my sister, whose baby was also struggling at that point with undiagnosed reflux and various allergies, so I took the medical professionals at their word and we struggled on.
Sleep was our biggest problem. Even as a newborn, we never got those long periods of sleep that newborns are known for. I have lots of photos of Max as a tiny baby where it looks like he was asleep, but I remember for a fact that he wasn’t! Especially during the day, he would refuse sleep, only sleeping in the car, and would get progressively more grumpy as the day went on and he’d still not slept.
I’d look at friends with their babies who would just sleep in their pushchairs, or be happily put down on the floor, and wonder why my baby wouldn’t tolerate that. I’d read in my baby book about how many hours of crying you could expect in a day and wonder why it was that he cried so much more than that, seemingly unendingly.
What was wrong with him???
I’d hear friends talk about how in the mornings they’d hear their child cooing away to themselves in their cot and wonder why it was that if Max was awake, he would be full on crying immediately. How other people would talk about grabbing a shower by popping their baby in a bouncy chair, while I had to either forgo a shower or grab a quick 30 seconds with the shower door open, as Max was terrified if I shut the door. When friends said at 12 weeks how they felt like it was all so much easier now I went home and cried – it wasn’t easier for us at all.
Routine became absolutely key for us. Despite being told by our Health Visitor that his lack of sleep wasn’t a concern, after 4 months I decided that we had to tackle it. We had a period of weeks where we stayed in our house, with me watching for those tell-tale signs of tiredness, at which point we would both head upstairs to our bedroom – blackout blinds up, white noise going, and I would shush-pat him, often for hours, to try to coax him to sleep. It took a while, but eventually this got quicker and we managed to get into a fairly typical sleep routine for his age. But it did leave us tied to the house for his naptimes, as he still wouldn’t contemplate sleeping anywhere other than in our darkened bedroom. I’d be the parent desperately dashing out of rhyme time because we had to get home before the 11:30 nap window disappeared!
I remember around the six month mark, things started to get better, ever so gradually. I put this down hugely to the sleep factor, and possibly weaning too, as Max took to food like a dream! Each month I would look back on the last and think, “this month has been an improvement”. We’ve hit rocky patches sure, but on the whole, he’s just become easier and easier.
From that point onwards, I feel like I have worried less and less about Max. There have still been concerns – he was massively late to start babbling, somewhere around 11 months he started making his first sounds, and as expected, his speech was very slow to progress as a result. But at every stage, he’s achieved all the milestones, albeit a little bit later than the textbook might say. As he started to be able to walk and explore, and then to be able to communicate in ways other than just crying, things gradually started to become easier for us.
I feel that since that first year, the difference is that I know and understand him so much better. He’s definitely a touchy child – so much more so than other children – and I know what things are going to trigger an outburst from him. New situations, new people, busy places – all of these things are often difficult for Max. Little things that don’t seem to worry other children at all are huge things for him – the change to the warmer weather recently has been a real struggle. At first he flat out refused to wear a t-shirt or shorts, despite the temperature reaching 25 degrees. Eventually he’d tolerate a t-shirt, but insisted on wearing a hoody over it, resulting in him massively overheating. We’re now at the stage where we’ve ditched the hoody, but he won’t tolerate shorts (and still tries to pull the t-shirt arms down and complains about being cold). By the time August comes around I’m sure we’ll have cracked it, just in time to make the change back to jeans and jumpers, which will no doubt be equally unwelcome!
He’s never been a fan of sensory type activities – he hates messy play, particularly if it involves getting his hands dirty. And his first two summers he flat out refused to so much as touch grass! He’ll now tolerate water play, but will still occasionally panic if his clothes get wet, and has warmed up to swimming since those early days at baby swimming where he’d cry for most of the lesson. He’ll even play with sand now, although using a spade rather than his hands – there are limits!
I’ve wondered so many times whether he might be autistic, and whether we should look into that possibility. He certainly has a number of traits that I know can be common in autistic children. And yet, I don’t feel that he struggles socially – although he has a few anger issues, and his tantrums are pretty spectacular still, he has always been very affectionate with me, and has good relationships with relatives, nursery key workers, nursery friends, and often surprises me with how good he is at making friends with other children when we’re out and about.
It was fairly late on that I discovered the term ‘high needs baby’, and it describes Max perfectly. I’ve come to accept that some children just need more from us as parents, without there being anything ‘wrong’ with them.
I think that in many ways his extreme sensitivity has actually made lots of things easier. I have to admit that I fully expected Max to really struggle with accepting the news that he was going to have a little brother. We held off telling him until after the 20 week scan, and I researched a lot about the best ways to help your older child adapt. And yet, this was one of the easiest things I’ve tackled with Max. He’s adjusted so well to having a little brother and is gentle and kind with him, and we’ve had none of the jealous outbursts I worried about. I think his sensitivity gives him a great sense of empathy – especially considering his age – and he always picks up if you’re feeling a bit sad and wants to cheer you up.
He’s also a huge character and when he’s happy, he’s really happy! He’s hugely excitable and finds so much joy in the little things that he’s just a real pleasure to be around. Whether it’s a loud game of hide and seek, or smelling all the different flowers, he throws himself fully into life and I love him so much for that.
I’m constantly amazed by what an amazing toddler, and now little boy, Max has grown into. I’d never have thought I’d get to a stage where I loved being a parent this much, but I can genuinely say that I’ve loved the toddler stage and it’s amazing to see him developing into a little boy before my eyes. He’s still very definitely ‘different’ from the other children I see, but that difference is what makes him who he is, and I wouldn’t change him for the world.