Early Signs that You Have a Spirited Child

January 27, 2015

Early Signs that You Have a Spirited Child

I've written before about my daughter, Athena, and how we chose her name. We wanted our girl to have a name that was strong, assertive, and confident in a world that doesn't value these traits enough in girls. Well, our prayer was answered. And then some.

From her earliest days, I felt Athena was different. If I'm honest with myself, I'll admit that on many of those early days, I wasn't sure different was a good thing. Oh, don't get me wrong, I loved Athena more than I'd ever loved anyone, bu

t she was such a far cry (pun very much intended) from the other babies I knew.

Here's what I noticed:

From her earliest days, she cried often and persistently, and we were pretty sure there was no cause aside from boredom. We couldn't drive 5-minutes down the street without a meltdown. She would cry so fervently that I’d pull over to the side of the road in a panic, checking to see if it was a wet diaper, hunger, too hot or too cold. It was none of these things. She simply wanted stimulation.

She wanted to nurse constantly. Her sleep patterns were irregular. When her needs weren't met, she arched her back in fury and cried with zeal - long before the fabled "tantrum years." She hit all of her milestones on time or early and didn't show any emotional deficits – so we weren’t necessarily feeling the need to have her evaluated for a disability - but we knew her personality was trying and tested us to our limits.

I often wondered what I was doing wrong and felt envious of my friends. I know we’re not supposed to compare, but other moms were seemingly able to go on with their lives after having babies, watch TV shows each week, go on kid-friendly trips, maintain friendships and hobbies, while I struggled just to survive, sleep, and not lose my cool. (For the record, I failed at the latter too many times to count).

Where to turn for help:

I eventually had to give up on reading all parenting books but one -"The Baby Book" by Dr. Sears - because he had chapters addressing what he called "the high-need baby," and these were the only descriptions that even remotely resembled my experience as a parent. Trying to soothe our baby with the tried and true methods like swaddling and pacifiers were a clear instance of round peg in a square hole. Later, I stumbled upon "Raising Your Spirited Child" and it immediately clicked.

Signs that you may have a spirited child:


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So who are these "spirited" or "high-need" children? They often get described as strong-willed, intense, persistent, sensitive, active, intelligent and leaders. The early days were so trying that I admittedly often used less flattering descriptors of my child: "She's all drama all the time," I would tell people.

Now that she's older, while her temperament certainly challenges me at times, I adore the unique and positive aspects of her personality. I believe if we steer her right she could grow up to be the kind of adult who stands up against injustice, leads a cause she’s passionate about or helps those in need. I adore her inquisitiveness, the way her mind works, her kind spirit, her intelligence and her compassion.

During the last four years, I've read a ton about Spirited Children. So how can you tell in the early years if you've been blessed with one of these unique children? While it can be hard to tell, especially with your first child, here are some early indicators.

*Note: all children go through strong-willed phases, particularly during the toddler years, and a baby who cries a lot may be crying due to a physical cause that will disappear with time. What I’m describing here is an overall and persistent personality type.

1. Bouncing off the uterine walls

No joke: I noticed that, compared to my son, my daughter was extremely active in the womb. She would kick sharply for hours while my son would just squirm and readjust, with brief periods of kicking. This clearly was her pattern as soon as she came out – kicking, back arched, limbs tightly flexed and crying. I later read that mothers of high-need kids often note that in hindsight their children’s temperament was evident even in the womb!

2. Unpredictable schedule

Parents of spirited children sometimes marvel at the concept of a “nap schedule” that’s so familiar to other parents. I remember trying to get Athena to conform to a schedule by putting her down for a nap at the same time every day. It never worked. She might fall asleep promptly one day and the next be bouncing off the walls for the next two hours, then not getting tired at night until close to midnight. It almost killed me.

3. Only you (mom)

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A preference for mom is normal in babies – especially starting around 6 months when separation anxiety develops, but high-need babies may violently reject substitutes – whether in the form of other caregivers or plastic devices such as swings. These babies often only sleep for long periods of time when next to mom. We relegated our crib to glorified storage space. Sleeping close to my baby was the only hope of getting sleep.

4. Highly upset by missed cues

If you offer the bottle when the breast was wanted or try to settle the baby in a crib instead of your arms or fail to heed the “pick me up” cue, an average temperament baby may settle, but a high-need baby may cry hard and persistently.

5. Needy


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High-need kids tend to be slow to wean from objects of comfort. Weaning from nursing is often exceptionally hard. Ours involved a 3-month period of prolonged tantrums.

6. Need less sleep

You know how they say babies need on average 15-18 hours of sleep in the early months? Mine slept 8 in a 24 hour period. Usually in 20-minute bursts.

7. Different body language

“There’s never a still shot,” remarked one father about his high-need child. These kids are more active from a young age, and their intensity shows in their body language: They may arch their backs in anger if not held in their preferred positions; their fists and limbs may often be clenched. Athena kicked the moment we placed her in her bassinet to make clear her displeasure.

8. May reach milestones early

These children often reach milestones early, and I think temperament is part of this. I noticed that my daughter crawled and spoke very early, and I chalked it up to her sheer intolerance of a world in which she was immobile and unable to communicate. Her more mellow counterparts sometimes learned to crawl and talk later, simply because they weren’t as horrified by the status quo.

A final clue to look for? Whether YOU'RE a “spirited” adult

If you yourself are intense, driven, intelligent, and a little on the Type A side, chances are decent you may have passed on these genes to your offspring.

So why discuss this on a website devoted to health and fitness? My next article will offer tips for parents of spirited children, to help them embrace healthy living and to help you with coping skills, since your life may feel different from that of other parents.

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