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What Happened When My Ultra-Sensitive Baby Started Growing Up

Photograph by Twenty20

My second baby was not an easy one.

Within the first three months of his life, my son was diagnosed with a trifecta of typical infant problems—colic, milk protein intolerance, and silent gastroesophageal reflux—that left him miserable more often than not.

He rarely slept comfortably, he projectile vomited after breastfeeding, he fussed and squirmed and squawked all day long, never content to do any of the things most babies do. We understood he was physically uncomfortable, but it was also as if his own existence was offensive to him.

Even once his GI issues were addressed, after I stopped breastfeeding and switched him to prescription hypoallergenic formula, and gave him daily doses of Omeprazole for his reflux, he was still grouchy.

Particular.

Perpetually unhappy.

His baby swing could only be set to move in one direction or he wouldn’t nap. We had to walk him around the room, jiggling him rhythmically, while feeding him a bottle. He overheated quickly and hated wearing more than one layer of clothing.

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I had to always hold him upright so he could look at his surroundings, rather than nestled down into the crook of my arm. He was still waking frequently all night long and would only sleep if the room was pitch black. He was basically the Felix Unger of babies.

I mentioned these behaviors to our pediatrician. (Mentioned is an understatement: I’m pretty sure I went into her office crying and asking what in the world was wrong with my baby). She gently suggested that maybe my second son was more “reactive” than our older son. He had strong preferences and a sensitive nature, and no qualms about letting us know it.

"Sensitive"— it was the first time he'd been labeled that way. It was comforting and frustrating—there was nothing wrong with him, but there wasn't much we could do for him, either.

For a long time after that, I struggled. Daily life with this baby was tough. I wondered if maybe I wasn't cut out for motherhood after all, and swore off the prospect of any future children. I handed my son over to my husband constantly, overwhelmed by his demanding nature. I screened myself for postpartum depression. I started seeing a therapist.

My ultra-sensitive child is almost four now, and sometimes I can’t believe how far he's come.

Because there was no other option, I dug my heels in and mothered him as best I could, even though I hated who he had turned me into: a mother too tired, resentful, and pessimistic to enjoy life with her kids.

And then my son turned one.

Something happened with the arrival of my son's first birthday and to this day, I can’t explain what or why. He fully outgrew his reflux and allergies, which certainly helped. But he also seemed to outgrow the existential angst that had surrounded him ever since the day he was born.

He could play with his older brother. He could tell me what he wanted. He could sit at the kitchen table and eat real food with the rest of the family. Though still more reactive than other kids, he was much happier.

Then he turned two, and after that, three. He is no longer a grouch all the time. He is boisterous and passionate, cooing over small animals, begging to wake his baby brother up in the morning, and crying enormous tears when his block towers collapse.

He says that his “heart feels SAD!” when a friend doesn’t want to share a toy. He throws gut-wrenching, apocalyptic tantrums, but can also tell when I'm feeling sad or sick, and scribbles flowers on construction paper to make me feel better. When my son is angry, he's a thundercloud raging through the house; when he's happy, it’s like a giant, glowing sun is shining down on us.

My ultra-sensitive child is almost four now, and sometimes I can’t believe how far he's come. He is still a sensitive soul—that will never change. He will probably always be quick to anger and fussy about sleep and finicky about his clothing. I'm sure he will never hesitate to tell me when I could be doing more to make him happy. But I don’t look at his sensitivity as a problem I have to deal with anymore. In fact, it's one of my favorite things about him.

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I know that as I write this, there are other mothers in the same dark, discouraging, newborn baby trenches that I was in when my son was born nearly four years ago. There are mothers fighting to soothe and comfort sensitive babies who never seem content, no matter what. There are mothers who rarely sleep for longer than 30 minutes at a time, and mothers crying in their pediatrician’s office, asking what is wrong with their babies.

To these mothers, I say: I know.

I know it seems like these days will never, ever end. I know no one else understands how tired you are. People will tell you that you’re doing all the wrong things or that it isn’t as bad as you’re imagining it to be. I know you feel like a terrible mother because you love your baby every day but some days you don’t really like your baby.

But these days do end.

Your sensitive baby will start to grow up, just like mine did. One day, his capacity for heightened emotion will show you more joy than misery. One day, you will melt into a puddle on the floor when he tells you that you’re his best friend. One day, your sensitive child might even voluntarily put down his beloved waffle at the breakfast table, climb up into your lap, and give you the best and longest hug anyone has ever given you.

Then you’ll realize what kind of mother he’s actually turned you into: one who can calm the storms and tempestuous seas of a sensitive child, and come out stronger on the other side. One who is grateful to have her family blessed with such a sweet, thoughtful soul. One who can send her child out to spread his sheer, unadulterated happiness with the rest of the world and make it a better and brighter place.

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