My daughter has been highly sensitive to people since she was three months old. At a time when most babies are oblivious to strangers and can be passed around like a football, she panicked anytime we entered a crowded room. At four months old, we had to leave my grandparents’ 60th anniversary dinner before the food arrived because she wouldn’t stop screaming. I tried walking her around the restaurant away from the noise, tried nursing her in the bathroom, tried baby-wearing her to keep her close to me, but to no avail. We finally left to prevent ruining a beautiful event, and because I was slightly worried something was actually wrong with her. As soon as she was strapped safely in her car seat and the door was shut, her crying ceased and she began to babble happily.
And so it continued throughout her first year, as we attempted to keep some semblance of our normal lives by bringing her to family events, playdates, and taking her out to eat, but usually had to plan for a quick escape in the very likely chance she would activate her wailing/flailing/screaming to signal when she felt it was time to go. And after every event, when we were safely at home, she transformed into the happiest baby on the block – cooing, giggling, and content with being left alone on her play mat.
She is now a few months shy of two and vastly improved since the baby days, but has proven to be a very sensitive toddler. She still hates small, crowded spaces. She still refuses to let anyone outside her circle of trust hold her, or sometimes even make eye contact with her. And she’s most content on quiet walks outside, playing with (or annoying) her brother, or zoning in on the nearest cat or dog at a play date instead of interacting with the other kids.
If I could get a re-do (said every parent ever), I would have handled my sensitive child’s first year a lot differently. Here are some lessons I learned in hindsight:
Stop Listening to Other People. I think every new parent, sensitive kid or not, comes to the realization that you have to take everyone’s well-meaning advice with a grain of salt. When anything is “wrong” with your child: be it their shyness, their refusal of bottles, their behavior, night wakings, or poor appetite, everyone seems to come out of the woodwork with advice on what to do. And that advice usually assumes that you haven’t already tried everything, or that it must be something you’re doing that is preventing your child from getting better. Advice from a more experienced parent can be extremely helpful, but not every situation requires a solution. Every parent is different, every child is different, and letting someone else influence how you view your child can sometimes cause even more stress than the situation itself.
It’s Not My Fault. Having four-and-a-half years under my belt with our older son, I had some inkling that her sensitivity issues weren’t the result of something we did. Our parenting techniques were a copy-paste of everything we’d already gone through with our son, and he was always a very social, laid back baby. As parents, we have a huge impact on the way our children experience and understand the world, but there are many things that are innately part of who they are, regardless of our influence.
I let people convince me that the my protectiveness was actually causing her sensitivity. And the guilt of it somehow being my fault caused me to do things that made me highly uncomfortable, like allowing family she just met to whisk her away while she screamed uncontrollably, or taking her to crowded events thinking more exposure to people would get her used to it. Once she was returned to me or after we left these places, she would be inconsolable, sometimes for hours afterwards. She would cry, hyperventilate, and sometimes throw up from being so upset. Finally, I listened to my mom instincts and kept her at home, only taking her to smaller more controlled events. If I sensed she was overwhelmed, I made sure to take her to a quiet place for a break before she became upset. She instantly became a happier and more relaxed baby, who actually interacted with new people more when there were less of them around.
Babies Need & Deserve Respect. There aren’t many adults out there who enjoy crowded places or showing affection to someone they just met, so why do we expect that from children? They’re thrust into this world in a very abrupt and scary way, and it takes them months to adjust to simple things like light, sound, and temperature. When the world around you is completely unfamiliar, imagine how jarring it is to have things being done to you all day – being fed, changed, bathed, clothed, and forced to sleep at times that are against what your body is comfortable with. To a highly sensitive baby, being handled by strangers and being in over-stimulating environments is simply too much for them to handle. I should have followed my daughter’s cues instead of assuming they were things she’d get used to.
She’s Fine Exactly the Way She Is. I finally realized I was being led with the end goal of “fixing” my daughter. I thought I could train her into being more social, easygoing, and comfortable in new environments by immersing her in them, when all I was doing was making her even more wary of new people and places. I would give anything to take her fears and anxiety away, but she has to get to know the world around her at her own pace. This may be a phase she grows out of, as children often do, but it may not be. And there’s nothing wrong with being introverted and cautious. At home with just our family, she is loud, vivacious, mischievous and silly. She climbs furniture, jumps on beds, and dances wildly until you can persuade her to stop. She reserves this side of herself only for closest loved ones, and I’m thankful she’s chosen us to share it with.