Some babies are easy. They sleep full nights, eat at regular intervals, and new situations or people don’t bother them much. They smile at their parents, aren’t afraid of strangers, and can fall asleep anywhere.
Other children, however, are difficult to put to bed and cry in new environments or when exposed to loud noises. They never seem to follow regular rhythms. Consequently, some parents may feel like they’re doing something wrong.
Understanding your baby’s temperament should help you cope with the challenges you’ll face. Knowledge of your child’s personality equips you to give them the kind of care and nurturing they need.
What Is Temperament?
A baby’s temperament is the behavior that is visible to the parents as early as the first days after birth. It is evident in how babies react to the world, and how they express their emotions and needs (1). Temperament is biologically determined and has a big impact on a child’s development (2).
A baby’s first months can give you a glimpse into their personality. Just keep in mind that personality isn’t static; it keeps on developing. How you, as a parent, react to a baby’s behavior plays an important role in the person they grow up to be (3).
9 Temperament Traits
A famous psychological study from 1970 came up with nine behavioral traits that are used to determine baby temperament (4):
1. Activity and Inactivity
How active is your baby in general? Do they move around a lot while they’re sleeping or being dressed, or are they more calm and mellow?
Do they bounce in the crib a lot? Is it impossible to keep them from moving when you’re trying to change them?
2. Habit and Regularity
Does the baby follow regular cycles when eating and sleeping? Is it impossible for your family to abide by any schedules?
3. Baby’s Adaptability
How well does your baby adapt to new situations? Do they only accept known environments and foods? Are they just as happy in new situations as they are in familiar settings?
4. Intensity of Reactions
Are the baby’s emotions and reactions too intense? Does every cry feel like the end of the world? Do they just quietly whimper when they’re hungry?
5. Distractibility or Lack Thereof
How easy is it for your baby to be distracted? Do they cry the whole time you’re changing their diaper? Is it impossible to draw their attention away from whatever they’ve set their eyes on?
6. Responsiveness to Change
This refers to the baby’s response to sensory changes.
Does every loud noise and change in clothing or temperature trigger a response? Do they refuse new foods?
7. Baby’s Mood
Is the baby generally in a good mood or are they more negative? Do they cry when given food they don’t like? Do they tend to smile, play, and splash around when you’re bathing them?
8. Approach to What’s New
Is the baby open to new experiences, or are they more withdrawn? Do they cry when they see strangers (although stranger anxiety is normal between nine to 30 months old)? Do they like new foods, toys, and people?
9. Persistence and Attention Span
Does the baby give up easily in the face of challenges? Do they lose interest in a pacifier after a while? Do they only cry for a little while after they’ve woken up?
Types of Temperament
From these nine characteristics, you can easily judge what temperament type best represents your baby.
About 35 percent of babies might be harder to fit neatly into one category (5). They present characteristics of different temperament types, but not clearly enough to be part of one of the three groups below:
Babies with Easy Temperaments
Babies with easy temperaments are those who sleep and eat with regularity.
They’re generally in a good mood, and don’t seem to be bothered by anything that’s happening around them. They adapt to new situations and people with ease.
Approximately 40 percent of babies are in this group (6).
Babies With Difficult Temperament
Babies with a difficult temperament give parents sleepless nights, especially during the first months of life. They cry a lot, and have a harder time adjusting to routines.
This group represents about 10 percent of babies (7).
Slow to Warm-Up
Some babies are slow to warm up, and it often seems like they’re shy or in a bad mood.
They have low activity levels, and experience a lot of difficulties when adapting to new things. These babies tend to be more withdrawn than curious, and external changes bother them. Around 15 percent of babies are in this group (8).
What does your baby’s behavior say about their temperament?
|Temperament Trait||Easy temperament||Slow to warm up||Difficult temperament|
|Activity||Varies||Low to moderate||Varies|
|Adaptability||Easily adaptable||Slow to adapt||Slow to adapt|
|Responsiveness||High or low||High or low||High or low|
|Approach||Positive approach||Withdrawal at first, shy||Withdrawal|
|Persistence and attention span||High or low||High or low||High or low|
Are Easy Babies Better Than Difficult Babies?
No baby is better than the other, although babies with easy tempers might seem less challenging for parents to raise (9).
Babies who react to their environment more strongly are by no means condemned to grow up to be difficult kids or adults. Temperament is not set in stone.
Easy babies may have problems later on, depending on the parenting style and their experiences during early childhood. Likewise, a baby’s difficult temperament isn’t a good indicator of their future personality either.
In fact, one study showed that infants considered to have a “difficult” temperament had stronger than expected language skills by 18 months old. It was felt that the extra verbal attention given to these infants had a positive effect on their speech development (10).
Many factors, including pregnancy hormones and labor, can have an influence on your baby for up to four months (11). After that, their personalities can change according to the kinds of input they receive from their environment throughout their childhood.
What matters is how you, as a parent, respond. This is where the role of fit between a parent and their baby comes into play. Fit refers to how compatible the child’s temperament is with his or her environment.
Studies have shown that nature gives your baby their first personality traits early on, but parenting also affects the child’s development.
At first, the baby responds to their surroundings in a way that is mostly guided by their genes. Later, their life experiences mold these biological patterns, and help make them stronger or more vulnerable in moments of stress (13).
These differences are collectively referred to as differential susceptibility. They explain why even siblings in the same family setting develop differently. Even if the parenting style is the same, every baby has a different way of experiencing the world around them (14).
This is why it is especially important to understand your baby’s unique temperament.
Child Temperament and Parenting Style
What does this mean for parents looking for the best ways to deal with their sensitive children? The most important thing is to encourage the child into more favorable behavior with positive reinforcement.
If your baby cries a lot, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and feel like it’s your fault they’re not happy. The parents of a difficult child need to remain calm even if the baby is frustrated. If they have trouble with regularity, try to maintain specific meal and sleeping schedules as much as you can.
“Difficult” children are the ones most affected by their environment, and they often need more parental support. They need not only structure and consistency, but also loads of patience. As you’ve probably guessed by now, parents may need to use different parenting styles on difficult children (15).
Happier babies, on the other hand, let their parents sail by those first months with ease. However, these kids are also easily neglected. Seeing as they don’t complain much, they may end up spending less time with their parents, and more on their own (16).
Slow to Warm Up
If your baby is slower to warm up, try letting them adapt to new things at their own pace. Take your child’s particular traits into account. Encourage them into new situations, but don’t force things on them.
Early temperament is only one factor, and your child’s personality may change a lot when they grow up. Their environment can help enhance or tone down some of their biological traits. Even a baby with problems adapting to regular rhythms can grow up to handle school and stressful situations like any other kid.
Getting to know more about your baby’s personality can help you understand them better as they grow. Comparing their behavior to the characteristics above is useful in determining the kind of parenting they’ll need.
A baby with more intense reactions, who has a harder time with regularity, will need care and attention that’s different from what a more easy-going child will need.
Take note of their early personality, and keep an open mind. Work at the child’s pace, and the difficult times should be short-lived.