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Learn Your Baby's Temperament


Most parents have an idea about who their child will be - in general, they expect to give birth to someone who's a lot like them - and dream of being exactly the kind of parent they would have wanted. If your baby turns out to be someone you hadn't expected, you might feel confused, lost or even angry. What's more, as your child grows, the type of parent you've decided to be might not work for the person you're raising. That's why it's important to figure out who your baby is early on and to adapt your parenting to fit.

What Is Temperament?

Psychologists identify seven specific traits that make up temperament. By the time your baby is about four months old, you should be able to start noting:

  • Adaptability: how easily he adapts to new things
  • Intensity: how vigorously she reactss when she's hungry, uncomfortable or doesn't like something
  • Sensitivity: how he reacts to stimuli like noise, light and even the way fabric feels against his skin
  • Distractibility: how easily she can be distracted from discomfort (or, in older children, from a task)
  • Activity: what kind of noise and activity levels he prefers
  • Regularity: how regular she is in her habits, like eating and sleeping
  • Frustration tolerance: how long he'll keep trying to reach his goal before he gives up or melts down. At the youngest age, the goal might be getting fed; later, it might be pulling himself up.

How babies react can be divided into three basic temperament types:

  1. The majority of babies - some 75 percent - are "easygoing." They adapt easily, eat and sleep on a fairly regular schedule and can be distracted or soothed. These babies have lower levels of activity, sensitivity and intensity.
  2. The "difficult" baby - some 10 percent of all babies - might have high activity levels, respond intensely to upset, be oversensitive and are consistently irregular in their sleeping and eating habits.
  3. The "slow to warm" baby - about 15 percent of babies - withdraws from or responds cautiously to new situations and people. These babies also tend to be relatively inactive. Cautious babies are able to warm to newness as they gain experience, however.

How can you discover your baby's temperament?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does my baby want to eat at about the same time each day?
  • Is my baby content most of the time, even when his diaper is a bit wet?
  • Does my baby adjust easily when we go somewhere new?
  • Does my baby generally like strangers?

If you can answer “yes” to most of these questions, your baby probably falls into the "easygoing" category. He's relatively adaptable and not too intense, moderately active and not overly sensitive.

mother closely talking to her baby

If your baby doesn’t seem to be easygoing, try answering these questions:

  • Is it hard to predict when my baby will eat and sleep and when he won't? 
  • Is my baby fussy much of the time and not satisfied with anything I do?
  • Does my baby react strongly to new people?
  • Does my baby seem to “freak out” when exposed to new things or places?
  • Does my baby hate bath time or cry whenever I dress him in a particular outfit?
  • If you answer “yes” to most of these questions, you might have a “difficult” baby. If not, try answering these questions:
  • Is my baby generally very quiet when she's awake?
  • Does my baby seem upset or "shut down" when exposed to new situations and people?
  • Does my baby usually react negatively to new tastes, sounds or other new things?
  • Does my baby warm up to new situations after being exposed to them for a while?
  • Do I have to approach change gradually to keep my baby from overreacting?

If you can answer “yes” to most of these questions, you probably have a “slow-to-warm” baby.

If your baby doesn't seem to fit easily into any of these categories, don't worry. Most of us fall somewhere on the continuum when it comes to such traits as intensity, adaptability and so on. Also remember that just about all babies might develop a temporary fear of strangers - and that doesn't necessarily mean that she is temperamentally non-adaptable or slow to warm. All babies become cautious about strangers between the ages of seven and twelve months - it's a perfectly normal phase of development. But the degree to which your baby reacts to strangers may reflect his temperament, with easygoing babies having the least intense negative reaction.

Babies who are securely attached to their primary caregivers are the most likely to develop into well-adjusted children, whatever their inborn temperament. That's why it's so important to understand your child's style and accept her uniqueness, even if she's "difficult."

The key is to find a way to accept what you can and can't change about your baby. Understanding that temperament is built in, and as unchangeable as the almond eyes he's inherited from his grandma, is the starting point. Acceptance will help you relax, and this will help calm your baby. All babies are sensitive to the stress they feel around them - especially difficult and slow-to-warm babies. So let yourself go with the flow, even if your baby isn't.

a mom trying to get her baby to stop crying

Next comes providing the kind of day-to-day care that your baby, a unique individual, needs. When you have a baby who seems to reject your attempts to soothe him, it's easy to step back or give up. But providing warmth and nurturing—in spite of your baby's fussiness, irritability and overreactions -is essential in helping your baby understand that he is accepted.  Feeling empathy for him as he experiences his temperamental discomfort can help you nurture him, even when you really want to run away! When he's so irritable, thinking of your baby as a sweet little guy inside a tougher “shell”  -rather than as someone who is “trying to drive you crazy” - will reduce your stress, and your child’s.

As for slow-to-warm babies, they need all the reassurance they can get that what's new is okay. They also need to be given time to adjust. Take things slow, and even if you've always been the life of the party, understand that when you enter a new environment with your baby, it's best to hang back for a while and let him observe before throwing yourselves into the mix. You'll be giving your baby tools for adapting that she'll be able to use later.

All babies thrive on consistency. After all, they are only now beginning the process of trying to understand how the world works. Doing the same things in the same way every day will tell your baby that the world is a stable and secure place. Even if they seem restless and resistant to regularity, difficult babies are in even more need of a dependable structure to their lives. That's not to say that changes can't be made, but changes should be kept as minimal as possible.

Babies, especially those who are very intense and active, often resist boundaries, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that they don’t need them. Boundaries are as essential as food and water in helping a child grow up to be self-sufficient and self-controlled. Babies who are not given boundaries can become anxious people who are fearful that they live in a world of rules that don't apply to them. Regardless of temperament, all children need rules.

Temperament is a given; how you react to it is the only control you have.  Love your baby and his temperament, and know that you are helping him learn to adapt to the world in the best way he can.

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