What's Your Baby’s Temperament?
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As any parent of more than one child can attest: All babies are different! You may have one baby who can be easily passed from grownup to grownup without making more than a few sweet peeps to let you know they’re hungry—and another who clings to you like you’re on the Titanic and wails at the first minor hunger pang. That’s the beauty of parenthood, isn’t it? You never know what you’re going to get! That said, there are four main temperament types that, more or less, describe all babies. Knowing which temperament description fits your little one will help you navigate these early years of parenting.
What is baby temperament?
Did you know that a thousand years ago, people believed a baby’s temperament was the result of the milk they were fed? That’s why ancient experts warned never to feed babies milk from a donkey! The truth is each baby arrives on this Earth with a unique personality. And part of what feeds that personality is their inborn temperament, which is their style of interacting with the world. Think of your baby like a boat and their temperament as the sea they sail on. An infant with a stable boat (good self-calming ability) on smooth waters (a calm baby temperament) sails easily through the first year. But a baby on an unstable boat (poor self-calming ability) that’s bumping through rocky surf (challenging temperament) is prone to being pushed into crying by the day’s tumult of sensations.
Is baby temperament hereditary?
While it’s true that temperament does tend to pass from parent to child, it’s certainly not a hard-and-fast rule. So, while many sensitive parents have sensitive babies, sometimes you wind up with your polar opposite! You never know what nature will throw at you.
Easy Baby Temperament
The good news: Most babies have mild temperaments and good self-calming abilities! If you’ve got a baby with an easy temperament, you likely already know it. These little ones are mellow from the first days of life. They register their complaints with only mild fussing, as if to say, “Mummy, it’s a little bit too bright in here. Won’t you please dim the lights.” These little surfer dudes are patient, easy to distract, and it takes them a long time to get frustrated. In short, they have no trouble taking the craziness of the world in stride, which is why they tend to fall right back into slumber even if they wake during light sleep. (That is, of course, unless they’re uncomfortable or hungry.)
Challenging Baby Temperament
These little babies have big personalities from the start! A baby with a challenging temperament can be super sensitive when it comes to noise and sudden jolts. When unhappy, they can cry with deafening force…and then have a super tough time reining the upset in. Babies with challenging temperaments tend to dramatically overreact to the same experiences that an easy baby pays no mind to. In short, infants with a challenging temperament have personalities that can be too big for them to handle. While all babies respond to the 5 S’s for soothing infants, those with a challenging temperament desperately need those soothing womb sensations to turn on their calming reflex, which is nature’s “on switch” for soothing and sleep and “off switch” for crying.
Sensitive Baby Temperament
Do you know any grownups who are extra-sensitive to sounds, messy rooms, or strong smells? Similarly, sensitive newborns tend to jump when the phone rings or yelp at the taste of lanolin on the nipple. If your baby’s temperament is extra-sensitive, you may notice that they occasionally look away from you during feeding or playtime. Don’t worry, this “gaze aversion” is not a sign that your baby doesn’t love you. Instead, looking away usually just means you’ve gotten a little too close to your sensitive bub. Alert and fragile as crystal, these infants are open to everything around them…and have great difficulty self-soothing once crying starts. (These bubs are also super-susceptible to the good that the 5 S’s can do!)
Intense Baby Temperament
All babies experience flashes of frustration. While babies with an easy temperament tend to take frustration in stride, little ones who have intense temperaments are more apt to explode. It’s as if the “sparks” of every distress fall into the “dynamite” of their volatile temperaments…Kapow! And, once these babies are wailing, stopping the upset may prove quite difficult, even when they get what they seem to want. For example, when a passionate baby is hungry, they may let out a “Feed me or I’m gonna die!” shriek that would make you leap clear off the sofa! But once they’re nestled to your breast, they may just continue crying and shaking their little head from side to side. Again, the 5 S’s are key to helping these emotional babies settle and feel safe.
Does a baby’s temperament last a lifetime?
As babies grow up, they don’t necessarily get less intense or sensitive, but they do develop skills to help balance their temperamental swings. By 3 months old, your baby’s smiling, cooing, rolling, grabbing, and chewing will help them better handle excitement and annoyance. And another month or two after that, your little one will be able to add the superb self-soothing skills of laughter, mouthing objects, and moving about.
With time, sensations and experiences that used to ignite your baby’s fearful shrieks will start a bubbly flow of giggles. So, if you have a challenging baby, don’t lose heart. Passionate infants often become the biggest laughers and most talkative members of the family. (“Hey Mom, look! Look! Isn’t this incredible?!”) And sensitive infants often grow into the most compassionate and perceptive children. (“No, Mom, it’s not purple. It’s lavender!”)
Bottom Line: Baby Temperament
It can be a challenge caring for a baby whose temperament differs dramatically from our own. We may handle a sensitive baby too roughly or an intense baby too gently. But part of our job as parents is to try to figure out our baby’s personality—and to nurture them in a way that suits them best.
If you need additional advice for dealing with your baby’s temperament and helping your little one learn to self-soothe, pick up a copy of my bestselling book The Happiest Baby on the Block. Got an older kiddo on your hands? Check out my toddler temperament guide and read The Happiest Toddler on the Block.
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.