Coping with a High Needs Baby (special guest: Lisa Sunbury)

Janet and Lisa respond to a letter from a pregnant mom who struggled mightily with her first child, whom she describes as a Velcro baby. Though her daughter has developed into a “happy, confident and wonderful little girl,” the experience took a toll on this mother and left her feeling insecure as a parent and “frankly terrified of having the same experience again.”

​Transcript of “Coping with a High Needs Baby”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, and welcome to Unruffled. This week I’m very excited because I have Lisa Sunbury Gerber with me. Lisa, as many of you know, she studied with Magda Gerber in the ’90s at Magda’s original office in Silver Lake, and she and I were both there at the same time. She served on RIE’s board of directors. She spent over 25 years in the field of early education as a caregiver, a program administrator, presenter, and teacher, and she offers parent/infant classes and private consultations as well as workshops and training for professionals through Regarding Baby. Check out her blog, There’s a treasure trove of information and insights there. Anyway, I’m very excited to have her here and we’re going to be discussing a parent’s question. The parent is concerned because she had what she described as a Velcro baby, and she is about to have another baby and she’s concerned that she will get caught up in the same patterns that she did the first time.

In case you missed my announcement last week, there’s a project I’ve been working very hard on for the last several months and it’s finally ready. It’s available on my website. It’s an audio series called Sessions, and these are recordings of my private consultations with parents discussing their urgent parenting issues. We get to have a back and forth, so it’s very helpful to me because I can ask all the questions I need to ask and we can have a whole conversation about their issues from aggressive toddlers to independent play to limits, and so these are real parents, very brave parents that allowed me to record our consultations with real issues, and hopefully I’m offering them real answers. So if you enjoy these Unruffled podcasts I think you’ll appreciate the more in depth explorations that we get to do in Sessions, so go to my website,, and at the top of the homepage there’s a button that says Sessions. If you click that you can read the complete descriptions of each episode and the common and sometimes not so common parenting topics that are covered.

Okay, here’s the letter that I received:

“Hi Janet. I was lucky enough to discover your work before my baby was born and it really resonated with me. I was and am very committed to parenting in the way you suggest. As my daughter has gotten older it has become easier and I’m so grateful to you that she is growing into a happy, confident, and wonderful little girl. However for a really long time I found it incredibly difficult. She was an extremely unsettled baby right from the start. I believe now that she had problems with reflux and pain in her body due to problems with her hips. She slept terribly for over a year and I was frequently up hourly no matter what I did. This really took its toll on me, physically and emotionally. She was un-soothable a lot of the time in the day as well.

What I particularly struggled with was the advice to meet her needs then let her be. I really wanted to do this but it felt to me that her needs were never met. The doctors were extremely unhelpful and I was never able to figure out what was the matter with her, which affected my self-confidence as a mother dramatically. I guess I’m asking what I should have done differently. She hated being put down right from birth, I guess because of the reflux. The only thing that seemed to help was to carry her around in a sling. I tried to avoid doing this because I didn’t want her to get used to it and I wanted to follow the RIE approach to natural motor development, but what do you do when being on their back seems to cause them genuine physical pain?

I’m pregnant again now and frankly terrified of having the same experience again. I know all babies are different and everyone tells me it’ll be easier this time as I will be more relaxed, which I’m sure is true to a point, but that kind of annoys me a bit because I feel like people are saying she was the way she was because I wasn’t relaxed, which I don’t believe was the case for a second.

If you could direct me to any articles that I may have missed that particularly offer suggestions for this situation I would really appreciate it. I feel that there must be other mothers out there who would benefit from some guidance on what to do when you feel like you’re doing everything to follow a RIE approach and nothing seems to be coming easily any of the time, day or night. My friends’ babies and in fact pretty much every other baby that I’ve ever come into contact with were all much more settled, at least some of the time. I love RIE and I think it’s a brilliant approach but it was so hard to implement with my pained, unhappy, Velcro baby. I guess I’m just a bit traumatized by how hard it was. I know you must be very busy. Please don’t feel you even have to respond if you are unable to. Thank you so much again for all you do. I regularly recommend your books and approach to other parents that I meet.”

Okay, so Lisa, do you have any thoughts you want to share first?

Lisa Sunbury:​ You know, they all come with their own temperaments, and some babies have a harder time. Either if that is their temperament, they’re just more sensitive. They’re more of everything. They’re more sensitive. They’re more irregular in their eating and sleeping patterns. They’re more intense in their responses, and then some babies legitimately do have physical factors that can complicate things. Physical pain. Reflux. But within that, I think parents, they have to take care of themselves and I think that even a baby, or especially a baby that may have an intense nature that may have physical pain for whatever reason, can benefit from RIE and can benefit from Mom taking care of herself and being more relaxed.

Janet Lansbury:​ If we think about it, they’re adapting so intensely. All their systems are developing. Their digestion. Their respiratory system. There’s a lot going on and it makes sense that they’re uncomfortable, and some of them even more uncomfortable, but what comes to mind sometimes is I remember Magda telling the story of the two parents. Let’s say two mothers with their infants. Both the infants are crying and uncomfortable obviously, and one mother is swooshing the baby around and rocking and maybe sticking a pacifier in and moving the baby back and forth, up and down, bouncing, bouncing, and the other mother is just still and holding the baby and maybe nodding her head and hearing the baby cry.

Both of those babies cried for a period of time. And her point was that there really isn’t something that we can do about it a lot of the time, and I think if we get caught up in that, I’ve got to fix this, I’ve got to fix this, then yes we’re going to put an inordinate amount of stress on ourselves. We’re going to add more discomfort to the mix with our baby because we’re so uncomfortable, which is only going to exacerbate things. And, for what?

What RIE gives us is the understanding that crying is communication. There are very few times when it’s an emergency that we really need to do something about right away, so we can take our time. We can listen. But we’ve got to, I think, work on our perception of our baby’s discomfort and our role in it, which is to obviously help our baby to be as comfortable as possible. That’s going to be in preventative ways as well. Having as calm and quiet a day as we can arrange for our baby in these early months especially. Giving them free movement.

One thing that was interesting about my son… You can’t really compare. As you said, the babies are all different. They each have their own temperament and their own sensitivities and their own levels of sensitivities, but I found it interesting that my son, he only had difficulties in the night. He would be up for two hours straight and I’d have him in my bed with me while he was crying. He had a little basinet next to  where I was sleeping, but I would be holding him and he would cry for two hours, and there was really nothing much I could do about it. Nursing didn’t help. In some cases it made it worse at that point, and there we were. And I remember getting up each day and, getting up. I mean I was up so much of the night between the two hours of crying and then the feedings. In the morning I would feel like I can’t do another day like this, and then there would be another day, and another day, and another day. But what was interesting with him is that, and he’s the happiest person in the world now.

There’s no happier person I’ve ever met than this guy, but during the day he I think was moving more. Even when he was just a tiny infant he was moving his limbs more, and I think that that was maybe part of the reason that he was better during the day. He’s a very active guy still and I think maybe just being asleep kind of slowed everything down. His digestion or whatever. Slowed it all down and then it got really uncomfortable for him, but when he was awake he could move around and I think that worked better for him. So what I’m saying is the free movement that Magda recommended, I do think that it makes a big difference for some babies.

Lisa Sunbury:​ Yeah.

Janet Lansbury:​ Another wonderful thing that RIE gives us is we’re able to see our child or we try to see this as an evolving person moment to moment and not making these decisions (and I don’t know that this mother did that at all), deciding that this is a certain type of baby that needs a certain thing. Instead of seeing that well, oh, in this moment, here on this changing table, my baby seems fine. So why don’t I just wait here a bit and let her explore a little or look around or be fine on her back in this moment? Being open to all the shifts moment to moment that our baby could make, instead of deciding, which would tend to lead us to over-intervene that my baby can’t handle being down on her back and making a blanket decision about that. I think that gets in our way.

Lisa Sunbury:​ And recognizing how it does change from moment to moment, from day to day, from week to week and so at a month old, maybe it’s true that the baby is needing lots of holding and the baby is uncomfortable and unhappy a lot of the time, and every time you do put her down she seems like she’s upset. But noticing how that changes with consistency, with giving her these opportunities. The slow pace and like you said, noticing on the diaper changing table, “Oh, she’s pretty content right here right now,” so you’re right there with her and you just slow that whole process down and let her be there, and so today maybe it’s for a five minute period of time. Noticing that, building on that, and acknowledging.

I think consistency is so important so you have that time when you’re feeding and you’re holding and if you believe that your baby has reflux, you’re holding her up on your shoulder after feeding for a longer period of time, but then do put her down. Do put her down, and maybe it’s only a few minutes but that’s a start, and then you build on that, and talk to her about what’s happening.

The freedom of movement I know from my little one who did have reflux, silent reflux, was incredibly helpful for her. She would pull her legs up to her chest from very early on from four months, and she’d pull them up in a rhythmic motion. That seemed to help her but that was not something that I ever did with her. I didn’t bicycle her legs, but I did talk with her. Get down there on the floor and talk with her about what I was noticing. “It seems like you’re a little uncomfortable,” and I might place my hand on her tummy but letting her have that time. Letting her find the way to move on her own that was comfortable.

Then, you’ve touched on this too, it’s our piece of it. If we’re holding, because we decide, “Okay, my baby’s in pain. I can’t possibly put her down. She’s miserable if I put her down. She needs to be carried. That’s the only way that she seems to sometimes not be so uncomfortable.” If we believe that about our babies then that’s what we’re going to do, and whatever we do is what they come to need and expect, if we’re feeling exhausted and stressed and doing all of this carrying, and I’m certainly not blaming parents.

Again, that’s why I started with making this distinction that they come to us with their own personalities, their own temperaments, and some babies are more sensitive, are more intense, but if we’re exhausted and we feel like this is what I have to do because this is what she needs, they feel that too so it becomes a feedback loop. A negative feedback loop. They absorb our exhaustion. They absorb our worry. They absorb our stress, and this is not to blame a parent, and in terms of doctors not being helpful that’s something that I’ve also experienced with my girl. There were things that I was observing and that I knew were problematic for her. She was struggling and she was in physical pain and discomfort and she was not responding to the typical prescriptions or advice that the doctors were giving, and that’s something that I feel a parent should trust themselves, should trust their observation if they are observing the baby closely. I went so far as to document in written form.

If you have an intuition that something is not quite right or that your baby is in pain and it’s based on your observations and you go to a doctor and they’re telling you it’s not a problem or you’re imagining this, or well just do this, and you’re not feeling listened to, you’re not feeling supported, you feel that there’s something that’s being missed, trust your intuition. Trust your baby. Trust your observation, and find another doctor.

Janet Lansbury:​ No doctor knows your baby as well as you do. I could see how that would strip her confidence though. It’s scary to be a first time parent and then to feel like you are kind of impotent in your ability to help your baby become comfortable.

Lisa Sunbury:​ Yeah, and to be exhausted. I mean that’s the other thing. I think it’s important for the parent to be supported, to have rest and to have breaks, so part of that is within the course of the day with your baby. If you’ve got a baby that’s high needs that gets up every hour at night despite whatever you’re doing, you’re going to be exhausted. The parent’s going to be in need of support or time away, time to sleep, time to exercise, and there can be this, “Well how can I leave her when she’s experiencing this?”

It can seem like, well, it’s selfish, but it’s not. Over the long haul your baby’s going to be a lot better off if you are getting as much rest as you can. If you get out to take a walk. If you get to take a shower. And again with RIE, there’s some of that that’s built in because you’re going to tell your baby, “I know you’re really unhappy right here right now,” and this is after you’ve spent the time with them, “But I’m going to take a shower and then I will be back.” So you establish those kinds of things. Not trying to eat while holding the baby or wearing the baby. Not putting all of your needs off all of the time because the baby needs me.

Janet Lansbury:​ Yeah, because again as you pointed out earlier, the same sensitive baby that’s very sensitive to the discomforts that they have is also, as you said, very sensitive to what’s going on with the parent, so taking care of ourselves is going to make our baby feel better. That sounded like a really quick shower she was going to have to take with the baby crying, but yeah, I mean it’s hard. I remember with my son, one of the things I knew that probably would help. It may have even been one of the causes of his discomfort in the night was that I drank coffee in the daytime when I was breastfeeding, and not a lot of coffee, but I knew I should probably cut it out, but you know what? I needed that coffee, and that’s where I had to draw the line. It’s like, don’t take away my one crutch that I need to survive right now, and I think also knowing that whatever it is it really will pass. It really, really will pass. It seems endless when you’re in the middle of it.

Lisa Sunbury:​ It does, yeah.

Janet Lansbury:​ But it does pass and then, like I said, I’ve got the brightest spark of happiness in this whole family. So if we can just do our best, get through it, there’s no perfect RIE way. RIE is just there to help you. To help you think about the habits that you’re creating. To just keep our eyes open. It’s not some judgment thing saying, “Don’t do this and don’t do that,” or, “No, you’re not getting it right.” It should be the opposite of that. This gives you confidence that crying is okay. Your baby’s just sharing her feelings with you, and you need to take care of yourself, and all of those messages, and just do your best.

Lisa Sunbury:​ Yeah. Letting go of the expectations that it’s supposed to work a certain way, or that if you do this then the baby is going to be happy. The baby is going to respond in this way. That’s not necessarily true. You know, from reading blogs and reading online, or even comparing looking at your friends’ babies you can get a skewed kind of view. It’s like oh, everybody else’s baby can lay there happily and play for an hour and is happy and easygoing, but you don’t know. You know what I mean? You don’t know, because you’re only seeing a little glimpse of someone else’s experience, someone else’s baby.

So letting go of an expectation that it’s supposed to look a certain way, or if you do this then the baby will respond in this way. I know this mom is expecting another baby and she had not such a great experience to begin with, so now there’s already this anxiety and this fear about well, what if it’s like this again? And it may or it may not be, but trying to let go of that projection as much as possible. Is this going to be the same thing, and how am I going to deal with it?

Possibly, she can learn from her first experience having a toddler now. She said that her toddler is happier and more easygoing now, so having that it’s like oh, yeah, it does change. It does evolve. It does pass, and having that experience of oh yeah, it did. It did change. And recognizing what you can do, what she can do differently. Not assuming and giving those moments and getting comfortable with cry.

The Period of PURPLE Crying, they talk about … This is actually an abuse prevention program and they have a website. They talk about, and it goes back to the story you were telling of two babies. Two parents. Both babies crying, and they cried for the same amount of time no matter what the parent did, and the different response of the different parents. All babies cry as they’re maturing, adjusting to being in this world, and like you said, there are so many things in the first month just adjusting to being in the world.

All babies do cry, and there’s a peak which happens right around the three month mark, and the difference is that some babies cry more and some babies cry less, and babies with colic tend to cry longer and harder and typically in the evening hours, and it can be three or four hours every night, no matter what the response. Whether you’re carrying them around or not, but it peaks at the three month mark and then it rapidly declines, and they talk about again, letting the baby know, “I’m here. I’m listening. I want to do my best to make you comfortable,” but not having that expectation that you are going to be able to take it away or that you’re going to be able to necessarily soothe the baby, or that that should be a goal, and so letting yourself off the hook a little bit for it.

Janet Lansbury:​ That’s wonderful. I mean I feel more relaxed hearing you say that, and I don’t think I’m going to be having anymore babies but wow, what a relief. They’re going to cry anyway maybe, so let it go. Let it be. Yeah, and I think all of those things. The projections. The labeling. The fear. All of those get in the way with our best tool which is to attune to our baby as much as possible moment to moment. Maybe not every single moment because we need breaks, but seeing our baby for what’s really going on with them instead of all of our own feelings around it. That’s the best partner you can be.

I remember another thing I love that Magda Gerber said was that the process of learning and understanding your baby is like two adolescents learning to dance together. This is how this moment is supposed to be right now. That’s what that moment was supposed to look like. That acceptance that you’re on track. Everything’s fine. It’s going to be okay. I think that will help. I hope that helps this mother, and if not, she should have a consultation with Lisa Sunbury. Because you are wonderful. Thank you so much for being on here with me. It’s so sweet of you. I love hanging out with you. If this is the only way we get to do it that’s okay with me too. I’ll take it!

Anyway, I do hope our discussion today helps people out there and thank you so much all of you for listening. Please check out some of my other podcasts. They’re on iTunes, SoundCloud, or Stitcher, and again both of my books are available on audio at and in paperback at Amazon and ebook at Barnes and Noble and Amazon and Check out my new audio series Sessions, the individual recordings of private consultations with parents. Also please take a look at the wonderful website and check out all that Lisa offers there on her website.

And don’t forget, we can do this.

UPDATE 3/1/20:

“Hi Janet – I wrote to you a few years ago and you and Lisa Sunbury were kind enough to do a podcast about my letter. It was called ‘Coping with a High Needs Baby.’ I just wanted to write quickly to say how grateful I was to you both. I must have listened about 50 times. My second baby was a completely different experience. He was calm, easy to soothe, and it was always obvious what was bothering him. So interesting isn’t it how unique their personalities are right from birth! He is nearly 3 now and is still laid back and calm. My daughter is still VERY loud and can be a challenge although she is wonderfully imaginative, joyful and hilarious. Parenting her has been hard at times, and I put a large part of the wonderful relationship that we have, and also her confidence and self assurance, down to the advice in your books and podcasts. She has recently started school and her teachers have told me that it is a joy to have her in the class as she is so enthusiastic about everything, self motivated and independent. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks again for the thoughtfulness, kindness, and compassion with which you and Lisa addressed my question. Those first few years were a very hard time for me. You helped me so much and I am so grateful.”

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