Dear tired parent of a non-stop, non-sleeping child: It’s not your imagination. This is harder.
If you are a parent of a little one who is juuust a notch or two outside the temperament norm for their age, I know that you can feel pretty alone in your parenting journey. How often have you already wondered what other parents do to have a child...
who just plays contentedly in their highchair?
who can sit quietly in a carrier while mom gets her hair cut?
who can be laid down awake and just…falls….asleep (What is this magic?).
Then there’s always “that friend” whose three-month-old is already sleeping through the night while you get barely two hours before you’re up again.
It’s a brutal truth that your road as a parent of a livewire is harder, less well-marked, and has fewer rest stops. While you may feel like you’re the only one on this road, you are definitely not…at all.
I talk to hundreds of parents a month and they end up saying a lot of the same things:
“This is not how I thought it would be.”
Having a child who’s not like all the others can throw you off your center as a parent because this reality is so drastically different from what we expected or were told to expect. It’s not at all helped by others around you who think there’s an obvious, no-brainer reason why your baby acts this way:
“He cries so much because you just keep picking him up.”
Or, “Have you tried gas drops?”
Then, there’s the advice from books or pediatricians that tells you to “just…” well, anything.
“Just swaddle her.”
“Just let her cry, and she’ll learn.”
“It’s just colic.”
They might as well say, “It’s just a tidal wave.” They don’t understand that we are not talking about the normal levels of fussiness. Livewires are routinely several notches above “normal” where crying is concerned. For many parents whose baby is soothed by whatever they do, they get the message that they know their baby and that they are good at this.
On the other hand, when you have a livewire, you may never get this opportunity. You don’t get many moments of “I’ve got this” because nothing seems to work, at least not reliably. The bar just keeps moving. This feeling of futility can be the first step in a long road of “I have no idea what I’m doing.” If this sounds like your reality—know you are a warrior, and you’ve got this more than you think you do.
“There’s so… much… crying” (your baby, but also you).
Livewires can express themselves much, much more intensely and urgently. My newborn daughter rarely “fussed.” When she would cry, it was like she was being stuck with a pin. I remember almost panicking and thinking, “Do I need to take her to the emergency room?” One mom on Facebook admitted:
“I would hear other babies' cute, sweet ‘cries,’ while my daughter’s regular normal cry sounded like her limbs were being ripped off her body.”
The inconsolable nature of the crying is what is particularly hard on new parents. Some researchers suggest that evolutionarily, these babies would have done really well in earlier eras. As hunter-gatherer newborns, these squeaky wheels would have received a lot of extra parental attention, closeness, and care.
Modern livewires demand a higher level of parenting investment and effort. And the good news, wiped out mamas, papas, and others: you are ponying up. Well done, you.
“Not enough bubble bath in the world.”
Livewire parents are, as a rule, pooped. My research has shown that you are guaranteed to be emotionally and physically beyond pooped. Sleep problems can be intense and, almost always, have gone on for a long time. Plus, livewires don’t just struggle at night; they require more from parents during the day, too. Oh boy. “Tired” doesn’t even describe it.
This is actually a bigger problem than it seems. When we’re this wiped out, it’s difficult to have the strength to hold limits or think clearly enough to problem solve. We end up “caving” on some issues or taking shortcuts that we later feel guilty about. First, I would like to give you permission to give yourself a break. You are doing your best while being more tired than any human should be. And second, take small moments to put even a little gas in your tank.
“My child isn’t like other children (or even like the other children I have).”
If this livewire is your first child, you may have doubted your own assessment: “Is my baby different? Or am I just totally out of it? How do I even know?” It’s easy to feel like the odd duck in a group of other parents and children. Yours seems to be the only child that gets so upset or can’t calm down. They always seem to need special handling.
Livewires just don’t inhabit the world in the same way as other children. I remember talking to a neighbor who had her eight-month-old sitting in a pram next to us.
She gave the baby an empty plastic water bottle to play with, and that baby played with it for a full forty-five-minutes. I kept staring and wondering what kind of strange magic this was. If it had been either of my children, that bottle would have been tossed out of the pram in fifteen seconds flat (“Done with that. Next?”).
I honestly wondered what this mom did to make her daughter this mellow.
I hear parents of livewires admit a certain amount of envy of parents with easier kids. This is normal and understandable. “Easier” can look pretty darned good when you are working this freaking hard. As a parent of young adult livewires, I can tell you, the payoffs do come. I promise.
“It’s just a lot.”
Livewires require more from their parents around the clock. Even when they’re happy, they want and need lots of engagement and interaction. There are so many questions and stories and thoughts and ideas. When they’re not happy or when they’re tired, it’s a different kind of rodeo.
Add to this the amount of distress and struggle you may have around sleep (and everything else). It’s hard on the nervous system. You may be at a point where you will do just about anything to have less crying and conflict. You have probably given in on so many limits or done what’s “easy” just to stop the crying for a brief moment.
I get it. I’ve been there. It’s okay.
This is where learning a little self-care, positive self-talk, and self-compassion is going to be your friend. Make sure you take moments to acknowledge all you are doing every single day and give yourself a break.
“I worry that I just suck at parenting.”
Single parent, stay-at-home parent, divorced, full-time job with childcare, working at home—whatever your situation, you are a rock star. You may not feel it. You may not believe me. You may not be able to see evidence of it in your daily life, but I promise you, you are a dedicated, roll-up-your-sleeves, in-for-the-long-haul parent. Livewires don’t give you that in-the-moment confirmation that what you just did actually worked. You mostly have to go on blind faith, which can feel discouraging. It’s hard when you don't see proof that you’re making good choices, but you are.
Here’s a dose of mad respect for all of the parents and other caregivers who are operating on blind faith in the process of shepherding this wild, exuberant, non-stop child across the bumpy terrain of their childhood. You are not alone and at the heart of all of the chaos is a brilliant, divergent, creative, passionate human—a big spirit in a little body.
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Macall Gordon has a B.S. from Stanford in Human Biology and an M.A. from Antioch University, Seattle in Applied Psychology, where she is currently a Sr. Lecturer in the mental health counseling and art therapy departments. She researches and writes about the relationship between temperament and sleep, and the gap between research and parenting advice. She is a certified pediatric sleep consultant working with parents of alert, non-sleeping children in private practice, as well as on the women’s telehealth platform, Maven Clinic. She comes to this work because she had two sensitive, intense children and she didn’t sleep for 18 years.