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When the New Baby Has Special Needs

“It was the silence that told me,” reports one young mother. “We were in the delivery room in the final stage. My husband was holding me and I was pushing and everyone was so excited because the baby was crowning. And then I pushed him out and suddenly everyone was quiet.” Then the nurses whisked the baby to the other side of the room and everyone was swinging into some kind of action and I was asking, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ And finally my husband came over to me with tears in his eyes and kissed me and said, ‘Honey, the baby looks wrong and they’re trying to figure it out but it’s going to be okay.’ And it has been okay but it sure wasn’t what we had in mind.”

In the dreamy time of pregnancy, every mom wants to think that her baby will be normal, healthy, and beautiful. But with the birth of their child, 1 in 28 new parents find themselves suddenly thrust into a club they never wanted to join. They are now among the thousands of parents who have a special needs child. Whether the problem is a physical handicap, a developmental disability or a chronic illness, few new parents are prepared to deal with the immediate practical decisions needed. Nor are they prepared for the equally immediate emotional upheaval that goes with the news that a baby isn’t what they expected.

If you are a new parent of a special needs baby, please understand that it is normal to feel the full range of emotions for a very long time. Often there are strong and contradictory feelings. The grief over the loss of the baby you didn’t get may vie with feelings of protection and tenderness for the baby that is here. It is normal to wonder: Why me? Why us? It’s normal to feel overwhelmed by all the decisions that you are suddenly going to have to make. It is normal to want the world to stop for awhile so that you can get your breath and figure out just how you are going to manage. It’s normal to be angry and sad. If you feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster, it’s only the truth. You are not sick. You are not inadequate. You are quite normally overwhelmed.

We Manage Grief Individually

Recognize that grief is highly individual. For those with special needs children, it is a recurring state. Even though you will adapt, even though you will find moments of joy and days in which you can be glad to be the parent of your own child, grief will sneak up on you now and then. It’s important to know this in advance so that you don’t feel like there is something wrong with you whenever you feel renewed sadness despite successes.

When the New Baby Has Special Needs

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). When the New Baby Has Special Needs. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.