Q&A: high needs toddler

Lisa writes:

"I have a wonderful, active, intense one year old son who puts the "attachment" in Attachment Parenting. He was born nearly 8 weeks premature and spent 12 days in the NICU, and is now perfectly healthy and normal. His pediatrician hasn’t even bothered with adjusted age since before he was 6 months old.

My challenge is that he is literally attached to me 20 or more hours a day, often nursing every hour or more. He has never slept more than 5 hours straight, and now we’re lucky if he sleeps a 3 hour stretch at night. He doesn’t sleep if I’m not next to him (or preferably, nursing him). During the day, if I so much as walk a few feet to the  bathroom without him, he screams and wails as though his world is ending. My husband and I tried to go see Harry Potter but we had to come home 45 minutes into the movie because our son was so hysterical I was gone (he stood at the door screaming "Mama" and holding his breath). We go to playgroups a couple of times a week and it takes him awhile to warm up but he does explore and interact with the other kids. I just have to stay in the same spot, or he’ll panic.

I wear him constantly outside the house, but he’s not so keen on that indoors. And we’ve tried NCSS for the sleep issues with no success. We do have a sweet young woman come in 4 hours a week to play with him so I can get some freelance work done. So my house is a mess, I don’t get any time to spend with my husband, my clients are firing me, and I have no time to myself.

My first question is, it gets better eventually, right?

And the second question is, how can I encourage my husband to use more positive descriptions of our son, and be less frustrated when dealing with him? He tends to call him "crybaby", "whiny", "mama’s boy", etc. and insists we are never, ever having another child. It’s hard enough dealing with the baby alone for 12 hours a day, but hearing my husband’s complaints when he comes home and I hand our son over for an hour or so is the straw that’s breaking this camel’s back."

The answer to your first question is "Yes. It will get better." I don’t know if you have The Fussy Baby Book by Sears, but it will help you get a little perspective about the fact that there are plenty of other babies like yours, and plenty of other parents going through the same stuff. And that at some point it gets better. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, yada yada yada.

Really, he sounds totally normal (for a high-needs baby) to me. He’ll probably for the rest of his life be one of those cautious people who spends a lot of time contemplating before he makes his move. Which will be annoying when you’re trying to get him to do things like decide on a college, but will come in really handy when he decides not to do things like buying stock on margin.

If your son hasn’t started walking yet, he might go through yet another period of extra clinginess when he starts walking. Just so you know.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong or even unusual about him, or the way you’re parenting him. I think you have two problems that are stretching you to the brink though. The first is that you have no time for yourself. I wonder if you could get the babysitter to come for another 4-hour stretch each week. It’s crazy to think that 4 hours is enough time for someone to get everything done that she needs to get done, including working. If you had two chunks of time you could use one to work in, and the other to run errands and have some time for yourself. I think that would give you enough breathing room to carry you through the next few months until your son calms down and is able to separate a little more.

The second, and bigger, problem here seems to be the way your husband is responding to your son. It’s my guess that the same thing’s happening here that happened to all the moms in my playgroup right around this age–our husbands all thought there was something "wrong" with our kids, just because they never saw any other kids the same age. At playgroup we moms saw all the kids together, so we knew that they’d all cry at the drop of a hat. But a dad who’s at work all day and only ever sees his own kid doesn’t have the benefit of seeing what kids are really like. (I can also remember absolutely fuming because the other parents at my husband’s job were telling revisionist stories about how old their kids were when they did all sorts of things. Really unbelievable stuff like not ever having hit separation anxiety, or being able to feed themselves neatly at 8 months, etc. Not to mention the so-cliched-it’s-almost-funny "sleeping through the night at 2 months because we did CIO to get him into his own crib" story.)

To solve this, we decided to do a weekend playgroup with dads invited. My husband was not the only one who came home from that day thinking that his kid was the best of the lot! When you see your kid in comparison to other age-mates, it really drives home how wonderful your own kid is (probably just because you’re used to the stuff your kid does, and things other kids do seems so foreign). But it also shows you just how normal the really babyish behavior is.

So my first piece of advice about your husband is to try to get him around some other kids your son’s age, so he can see that your son is normal. All one-year-olds are crybabies (they cry like babies, strangely enough). And, I hate to break it to him, but this is just the very beginning of a long and crazymaking whiny period. So far it lasts until at least 4 years of age. (And I hear it starts again at age 13).

The other thing that could be frustrating your husband is that he wants to really play with your son, but your son prefers you to him. I know it’s impossible for your husband to believe at this point, but a year from now your son will be all about your husband and will want nothing to do with you (unless you’re still nursing, in which case he’ll want nothing to do with any part of you except the milk machines). It will be "Daddy!" and "ball!" and "trucks!" and all the typically male bonding things, including horseplay and goofy behavior and watching sports on TV and fart noises and endless giggles. It’s got to be so hard for your husband to feel like he really wants to play with your son, and do all those typical dad-son things, but then have your son only want you.

I think this situation could be eased if there was one activity that your son absolutely loved that only your husband did with him. That way, they could do that thing every night when Daddy was home, and your son would love it and look forward to it. Since your son is one, the first thing I thought about was a ball tower or ball popper. Kids seem to go just nuts over toys like this, and it’s something your husband will probably have fun with, too, and since it’s balls it’s ostensibly a manly activity. If you never played with it with him, your son could look forward to that activity every night with his dad.

Not that this has anything to do with anything, but if your husband really seems preoccupied by the "mama’s boy" thing, you could casually slip into conversation the factoid that Michael Jordan, the amazingly talented and unquestionably virile basketball superstar–arguably the best athlete of last century–nursed until he was 3 years old. By some people’s definitons, that would make MJ a real mama’s boy. But look how he turned out.

Keep your chin up. Once your son grows out of the true baby stage it’ll be easier for your husband to connect with him. Your son will probably always need more from you than some other kids do from their moms, but he’ll need less and less as he gets older. And any client who fires you is an absolute fool, because you take amazing photographs.