Babies teach us some of life’s most important lessons, including slowing down, letting go, and the futility of forcing an agenda. They find joy in minutiae and look deeply into our souls with those heart-melting eyes. Very few life events push our own unresolved troubles to the surface faster than an entirely dependent new family member. We look at this baby and all of a sudden, we see and feel our own babyhood. Talk about motivation to better ourselves!
At the same time, caring for a baby in our modern and isolated society is hard. It’s really, truly, seriously difficult. Most people don’t know the extent of this effort until they are deep in the trenches, holding that precious baby for days on end, until their arms ache and their eyes droop. Time slows during those moments. The hours between now and bedtime drag on and even then, there’s no true promise of sleep.
New parents need community, especially during the early months and years. Becoming a parent is an enormous adjustment. “It takes a village” couldn’t be more accurate. Unfortunately today’s Western structure means many new parents do not have such a village. Whether part- or full-time, infant caregivers know overwhelm on many levels. All parents have their own individual baby-related challenges. However, highly sensitive people (HSP), also known as people with sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), may struggle differently.
Among other differences, HSP’s experience hunger, sleep deprivation, and pain more intensely. Many new parents say they are more sensitive than their pre-baby selves an for HSP’s, this difference can feel unbearable at times. Elizabeth Stone’s quote “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body,” rings especially true for people with the SPS trait. HSP’s make up 15 to 20% of the general population, with a similar proportion of highly sensitive animals found in many other species. When HSP’s manage the challenging aspects of the trait, they tend to be particularly kind, attentive, and engaged individuals.
REMIND ME AGAIN: WHAT IS SENSORY PROCESSING SENSITIVITY?
SPS is a genetic trait, which consists of four main characteristics. Dr. Elaine Aron’s acronym D.O.E.S., described below, spells out each category. For parents, each characteristic manifests in specific childrearing-related ways. First I will cover the challenges in each subcategory, which increase with lack of support in early parenthood. Next week, we will focus on the corresponding strengths.
Depth of Processing: Compared to their non-HSP counterparts, HSP’s process information over a longer period of time, turning information over and over again in their minds. They scrutinize incoming data many ways, searching for meaning, analyzing and predicting potential outcomes. Realistically, highly sensitive parents do not have time to deeply process the rapid-fire changes of living with a new baby. The ever-shifting developmental capabilities, household environment, family dynamics, daily schedules, morphing physical states, and excited visitors quickly rotate. Spending your days with a baby means you don’t have the normal quiet time and extensive sleep necessary to make sense of the world. Deeply processing too many changes and life events without enough breaks easily causes overstimulation. Deeper processors need more time to properly transition between daily activities and major life events. HSP’s also worry they are “slow” or “stupid” because they take longer to integrate and respond to incoming information.
Overstimulation: With enough environmental and sensory input, everyone becomes overstimulated eventually; HSP’s live with a lower stimulation threshold than non-HSP’s. HSP’s have trouble differentiating pertinent information. Childrearing-related details as mundane as household clutter, furniture rearrangement and baby-proofing, lack of restorative sleep, increased social interaction, and leaving the house on someone else’s schedule all contribute to overstimulation. In this state, HSP’s struggle to regulate their emotions. They might lash out or become disproportionately stressed. It becomes difficult to connect with or support loved ones. Imagine listening to your partner’s daily recap while feeding the baby, listening to babbling, eating dinner, checking the clock, thinking ahead to bedtime, and prepping for the next day, all with a buzzing, fatigued brain. I can think of a pertinent personal example: I tried to work on a complicated puzzle shortly after my baby was born; With a household of people and not enough rest, I gave up after starting at the photo for an hour without correctly placing a single piece.
Emotional Reactivity and Empathy: HSP’s experience strong, intense emotions. Their mirror neurons respond strongly, which means they acutely perceive and feel others’ emotions. Changes in routines and lack of downtime break down emotional resilience and boundaries. Without these normally necessary shields, it becomes difficult to impossible to comfortably sit with another person’s distress. This applies not only to a screaming baby, a tired spouse, and agitated pets, but also the emotional roller coaster inherent in childbirth. The downfall is snapping at others, feeling your baby’s emotional or physical pain when they cry, and internalizing friends’ and family members’ opinions while considering their feelings. Differential susceptibility, or the tendency to fare better in positive environments and worse in negative settings, means people with SPS are more susceptible to long-term birth trauma effects. We usually focus on physical recovery and forget about the necessary post-birth emotional recovery for the entire family, not to mention the emotional energy spent adjusting to such a major lifestyle change. Common lingering symptoms include long-lasting low mood, chronic fatigue, persistent fear about something happening to your baby, hypervigilance, disturbing flashbacks or visual images, panic attacks, and extreme distress when separated from your baby.
Sensing the Subtle: HSP’s have more responsive physical senses, such as temperature, strong smells, tastes, physical touch, loud noises, and sight. Cue hormonal hot flashes, prenatal nausea and vomiting, dirty diapers, becoming touched out from holding and breastfeeding a newborn, and screaming kiddos. People with SPS perceive subtle stimuli faster and more frequently.
Luckily there is great news: Regarding the differential susceptibility mentioned above, HSP’s really flourish in healthy environments. Despite the onslaught of changes, parents with SPS possess so much potential! Attuning to our babies comes naturally, we tend to be creative types, and we are extra kind and thoughtful when our nervous systems relax. Do hold out hope. Read more next week on the positive impacts of SPS on parenting.