What is Your Baby’s Temperament?

Think of your baby like a boat and her temperament as the sea she sails on. Infants with a stable boat (good self-calming ability) on a smooth sea (a calm baby temperament) sail easily through the first year. But unstable boats (poor self-calming ability) or rocky seas (challenging temperament) make babies prone to being pushed into crying by the day’s tumult of sensations.

Luckily...most babies are mild tempered!

Easy Baby Temperament

Mellow from the first days of life, these babies register their complaints with mild fussing, as if to say, “Please Mummy, it’s a little bit too bright in here!”

These little “surfer dudes” have no trouble taking the craziness of the world in stride.

However, babies who are sensitive or intense—or, heaven help you, both—often launch into screaming outburst, like boats tossed in a storm.

Challenging Baby Temperament: Little Babies with Big Personalities

Lizzy and her twin Jennifer were like peas in a pod, both super sensitive babies when it came to noise and sudden jolts. When unhappy, they cried with deafening force. Their one difference: Jenny could eventually quiet her own upsets, but once Lizzy’s screams got rolling, she had no ability to rein herself in.

Infants like Lizzy are tough because their personalities are too big for them to handle. They’re often given funny nicknames by parents who are trying to laugh – rather than cry—during the difficult early days and nights. Amanda’s parents christened her “Demanda,” Charlotte’s mom called her “Gassy Gussy,” and Lachlan’s parents dubbed him “General Fuss-ter.”

Two types of baby temperament are particularly challenging: babies who are sensitive to everything… and those who are super-passionate and intense.

Sensitive Infant Temperament

Do you have extra-sensitive friends or relatives who get annoyed by 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. Alert and pure as crystal, these infants are open to everything around them… and have great difficulty self-soothing once crying starts.

If your newborn’s temperament is extra-sensitive, you may notice that she occasionally looks away from you during feeding or playtime. This “gaze aversion” is not a sign that she doesn’t like you or doesn’t want to look at you. It usually just means you’ve gotten a little too close. (Imagine a ten-foot face suddenly coming right in front of your nose. You, too, might need to look away!) Move back a foot or two to allow a bit more space between her eyes and your face.

Intense Infant Temperament

All babies experience flashes of frustration. Calm kids take these in stride, but intense babies have temperaments that tend 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 be hard, even when they get what they seem to want.

Jackie witnessed this intense crying when her passionate two-month old got hungry.

Jeffrey would announce his hunger by letting out a “Feed me or I’m gonna die!” shriek and I would leap off the sofa, pulling my breast out as I ran to him. But he’d often ignore my dripping boob at his mouth and continue to cry, shaking his head from side to side as if he were blind!

I was worried that he might think of my breast as a hand trying to silence him rather than my loving attempt to rescue him. Despite his protests, I persisted until he could latch on. And then, lo and behold, he’d eat as if I hadn’t fed him in months.

Jackie smartly realized that Jeffrey wasn’t intentionally ignoring her; he was just an itty bitty baby…dealing with a great big personality.

Does a Baby’s Temperament Last a Lifetime?

As babies grow up, they don’t 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 her handle excitement and annoyance. And another month or two after that she'll add the superb self-soothing skills of laughter, mouthing objects, and moving about.

With time, the excitement that used to ignite her 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! It’s incredible!”) And sensitive infants often grow into the most compassionate and perceptive children. (No, Mom, it's not purple. It’s lavender.”)

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 “The Happiest Baby on the Block.”

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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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.