Why do some babies wake more than others?

GUEST POST by Tracy Cassels, PhD and founder of Evolutionary Parenting

Some families seem to ask the question, “Will my child ever sleep?” more than anyone else. Their babies appear to be more sensitive than others and there doesn’t appear to be any underlying medical reason for the constant waking. Unfortunately, some of the advice these families receive is not helpful to them or their babies, whose temperaments aren’t like most others.

Worried your baby's sleep might not be normal?

This type of child is known as an orchid, because they are far more susceptible to their environments than other kids, just like the flower. The term was coined by Dr. W Thomas Boyce [1-4] who has spent decades researching these children and their long-term outcomes. The concept is similar to the high-needs baby construct by Dr Sears or the highly sensitive child description by Dr Aron [5-7] - both of which provide information on specific behaviours that are useful for families. It is likely that all three concepts speak to the same type of child.    

Orchid flowers require that near-perfect environment to thrive. People with this make-up represent about 20% of the population. While they are a sizeable minority, they are a minority nonetheless which is why many parents struggle when they look to families around them and see other kids who are so very different from their own.   

The biological basis that I believe helps us understand the behaviours we see includes: 

Environmental awareness

Orchid children are very aware of their surroundings [4, 7, 8].  This awareness seems to start at birth and continues for the duration of their lives.  Many families of orchids I have worked with report their orchid babies were highly alert from the start. They seemed to take absolutely everything in. This awareness seems to be a key feature in their ability to detect threats and they may be more sensitive to identifying potential threats, even when none are there.  Some of the behaviours that families report seeing that stem from this include:

  • Kids (toddlers and up) who listen to every word you say or who notice minute details that others miss
  • Kids who seem to struggle to shut their mind down at bedtime - always asking questions or looking to keep moving at all times
  • Dislike of busy places because of the amount of sensory input

Biological reactivity

This refers to their stress response to minor to moderate stressors and is actually the way in which orchids are identified in research settings [3, 5, 6, 9].  Whereas dandelions have a more muted response to stress, orchids can go off the charts.  Although most babies don’t regulate very well at birth - it’s part of being a baby - some seem to do much worse.  They may struggle with regulation at all physiological levels - temperature, heart rate, and so on - as well as emotionally.  These babies require more of what’s called ‘co-regulation’, or how adults help regulate their babies through soothing or proximity.  A baby who is touching his or her caregiver can actually regulate better as they use information from the caregiver to do this [11, 12].  Some of the behaviours you may see in a child due to this biological reactivity include:

  • A baby that will scream blue murder when put down 
  • Sensitivity to sensory stimulation (lights, noise, textures, etc.)
  • Stronger separation anxiety 
  • Very quick to react - so babies that go from 0 to 100 when distressed
  • Lots of breastfeeding as they use breastfeeding as a means to regulate

Parents face many practical struggles because of the intensity of the needs of their little orchids. Work and productivity are expected in our culture, and this can create added pressure on parents and children, especially when it comes to sleep.

Often these families are given the advice to push for totally independent sleep - the exact opposite of what these children actually need when we think about their biological reactivity and need for co-regulation. This can exacerbate the problem by leading to greater struggles with sleep as children become more resistant and fearful of bedtime. It also has another implication: feelings of failure for the parents. 

One of the most common themes for parents I work with is this idea that it is them who have failed.

This can lead to intense depression and anxiety which isn’t helpful for anyone.  If parents return to what kind of worked, they face judgment and criticism and a complete lack of empathy from others who now say they have done this all to themselves.  [10]

It’s a horrible situation for everyone as these feelings are not conducive to good mental health for parents or positive parenting.  And although there are many areas that families of orchid children can struggle with, sleep is one of the biggest.  

These are five common struggles for families of higher-needs children: 

1. Difficulty falling asleep. 

Those anxieties that run through their heads – even at young ages when they are picking up everything from the world around them – can make falling asleep difficult.  Most parents report their orchids require more assistance to fall asleep at night, whether it’s nursing, rocking, cuddling, etc.  This is very normal given the struggles they can have to shut things down in their head and physiologically (we help regulate in this regard).  This means re-setting expectations about independent sleep and knowing you will need to be there for some years to come.  It also highlights how important it is for them to have ways of calming their brain before sleep whether it’s a guided meditation, pink noise, massage, and so on.

2. Frequent wakings. 

Especially at younger ages, orchids can wake frequently for a number of reasons and will require parental assistance to fall back asleep.  While we can try to understand the reasons for these wakings, often we just won’t know until they’re older.  Sometimes it’s fears or anxieties that creep into their head, but sometimes it’s sensory and our kids may not have the capacity to share this with us.  Of course, you can try to address common sensory concerns such as removing any white/blue light from the bedroom, removing tags from sleeping clothes and checking the temperature to ensure it’s not too hot or cold.  If you think it’s psychological, then I suggest you create an atmosphere at night to calm the brain either using pink noise or talking to your orchid about their day to help them conceptualize all that happened, especially in the event of anything distressing. 

3. Lack of independent sleep.

Orchids are not known for their innate ability to sleep alone and this isn’t just for babies, but for years after. Co-sleeping is a very common method of increasing sleep for everyone when you’re the parent of an orchid even if you didn’t plan on going this route earlier. This may include a side-car cot, a larger floor bed, combining beds to make a large family bed, and so on.  

Learn more about improving your own sleep while nurturing a wakeful child

4. Does not tolerate a cot. 

Many (but not all) orchids seem to end up hating the cot at a certain point.  I don’t know if it’s sensory or the anxiety that can come with feeling trapped and unable to have control over moving out of that space.  The problem for parents of orchids who are desperately pushing the cot is that it can lead to massive bedtime resistance.  The orchid will extend the anxiety of the cot to the entire room and can end up fighting any cue to sleep which creates larger problems.  Often either using it as a side-car cot or ditching it for a floor bed can make a difference.

5. Struggle with change. 

Orchids don’t like change as it triggers a sense of threat.  This doesn’t mean change isn’t possible, but the key is to remember orchids need more time.  They can feel far more threatened or scared and will need baby steps to get to feelings of safety and security.  In order to feel safe, they need you and may take more time to adapt to changes like moving to a new room.  

Summary

Sleep with an orchid isn’t an easy thing for many families. But if you understand why your child may struggle and set realistic expectations, it can make all the difference.

Check out this course of Tracy's and learn more about raising an Orchid child

Contributed by Tracy Cassels, PhD. Tracy is the director of Evolutionary Parenting, a resource she founded in 2011 after the birth of her daughter.  It began whilst she was in graduate school and has continued and grown as she completed her PhD and moved towards more direct work with parents and families.  She has a B.A. in Cognitive Science from the University of California, Berkeley, an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from the University of British Columbia, and a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology, also from the University of British Columbia. The focus of her dissertation work was on empathy and theory of mind in young children.

Her academic works have been published in peer-reviewed journals, including Psychological Assessment, PLoS One, Personality and Individual Differences, Midwifery, and more. Tracy serves as an Adviser to the Children’s Health & Human Rights Partnership, a non-profit agency dedicated to ending routine infant circumcision.  She has previously worked in the non-profit sector in agencies focused on education and/or social and emotional development.

Tracy lives in a small town in Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada.

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REFERENCES:

[1] Boyce, W. T. (2019). The orchid and the dandelion: Why sensitive people struggle and how all can thrive. Pan MacMillan.

[2] Boyce, W. T., & Kobor, M. S. (2015). Development and the epigenome: the ‘synapse’ of gene–environment interplay. Developmental science, 18(1), 1-23.

[3] Ellis, B. J., & Boyce, W. T. (2008). Biological sensitivity to context. Current directions in psychological science, 17(3), 183-187.

[4] Ellis, B. J., Boyce, W. T., Belsky, J., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & Van IJzendoorn, M. H. (2011). Differential susceptibility to the environment: An evolutionary–neurodevelopmental theory. Development and psychopathology, 23(1), 7-28.

[5] Aron, E. N., Aron, A., Nardone, N., & Zhou, S. (2019). Sensory processing sensitivity and the subjective experience of parenting: An exploratory study. Family Relations, 68(4), 420-435.

[6] Lionetti, F., Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Burns, G. L., Jagiellowicz, J., & Pluess, M. (2018). Dandelions, tulips and orchids: evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium-sensitive and high-sensitive individuals. Translational psychiatry, 8(1), 1-11.

[7] Lionetti, F., Aron, E. N., Aron, A., Klein, D. N., & Pluess, M. (2019). Observer-rated environmental sensitivity moderates children’s response to parenting quality in early childhood. Developmental Psychology, 55(11), 2389-2402.

[8] Pluess, M., Assary, E., Lionetti, F., Lester, K. J., Krapohl, E., Aron, E. N., & Aron, A. (2018). Environmental sensitivity in children: Development of the Highly Sensitive Child Scale and identification of sensitivity groups. Developmental psychology, 54(1), 51.

[9] Shakiba, N., Ellis, B. J., Bush, N. R., & Boyce, W. T. (2019). Biological sensitivity to context: A test of the hypothesized U-shaped relation between early adversity and stress responsivity. Development and psychopathology, 1-20.

[10] Martini, J., Petzoldt, J., Knappe, S., Garthus-Niegel, S., Asselmann, E., & Wittchen, H. U. (2017). Infant, maternal, and familial predictors and correlates of regulatory problems in early infancy: The differential role of infant temperament and maternal anxiety and depression. Early human development, 115, 23-31.

[11] Williams, L. R. & Turner, P. R. (2020).  Infant carrying as a tool to promote secure attachments in young mothers: Comparing intervention and control infants during the still-face paradigm.  Infant Behavior and Development, in press. 

[12] Williams, L. R. (2020).  The impact of infant carrying on adolescent mother-infant interactions during the still-face task.  Infant and Child Development, https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.2169.