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What Is Baby Temperament? 9 Temperament Traits

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Understanding your child’s temperament can help you be a better parent.

Some babies are easy to care for. They sleep full nights, eat regularly, and are not bothered by new situations or people. 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. Understanding your child’s personality will equip you to give them the kind of care and nurturing they need.

Key Takeaways

  • Baby temperament is their early behavior and reactions to the world, and understanding it helps parents provide appropriate care and nurturing.
  • Nine temperament traits include activity level, regularity, adaptability, intensity, distractibility, responsiveness, mood, approach, and persistence.
  • There are three types of temperament: easy (40% of babies), difficult (10% of babies), and slow to warm up (15% of babies).
  • Parenting style and environment play a crucial role in shaping a child’s personality, so it’s essential to tailor your approach based on your baby’s temperament.

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 express their emotions and needs (1). Temperament is biologically determined and greatly impacts a child’s development (2).

A baby’s first months can give you a glimpse into their personality. But remember that personality isn’t static; it keeps on developing. How you, as a parent, react to a baby’s behavior plays a vital 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 sleeping or being dressed, or are they calmer and more 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 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 and 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% of babies are 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% 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% of babies.

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 many difficulties adapting to new things. These babies tend to be more withdrawn than curious, and external changes bother them. Around 15% of babies fit into this group (7).

Temperament Table

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
Regularity Very regular Varies Irregular
Adaptability Easily adaptable Slow to adapt Slow to adapt
Intensity Low Low Intense
Distractibility Varies Varies Varies
Responsiveness High or low High or low High or low
Mood Positive Slightly negative Negative
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 another, although babies with easy tempers might seem less challenging for parents to raise (8).

Babies who react more strongly to their environment 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.

One study showed that infants considered to have a “difficult” temperament had stronger-than-expected language skills by 18 months old. Some believe that the extra verbal attention given to these infants had a positive effect on their speech development (9).

Many factors, including pregnancy hormones and labor, can have an influence on your baby for up to four months (10). 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 their environment.

Pro Tip

As a parent, you should modify the environment to match the child’s temperament type. This is even more important in the case of the more difficult baby. If you’re impatient with a crying child, you might harm their development, especially if they’re highly sensitive (11).

Differential Susceptibility

Studies have shown that nature gives your baby their first personality traits early on, but parenting also affects their development (12).

At first, babies respond 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.

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.

This is why it is essential 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 to behave more favorably with positive reinforcement.

Difficult Babies

If your baby cries a lot, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed or feel like it’s your fault they’re not happy. Parents of difficult children need to remain calm even if the baby is frustrated. If the baby has 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 with difficult children (13).

Easy Babies

Happier babies 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 (14).

Try to make a focused effort to spend time with these children as they grow so they will understand that they also have your love and support.

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 to experience new situations, but don’t force things on them.

Early temperament is only one factor, and your child’s personality may change significantly as 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.

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Headshot of Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

Leah Alexander, M.D. FAAP is board certified in General Pediatrics and began practicing pediatrics at Elizabeth Pediatric Group of New Jersey in 2000. She has been an independently contracted pediatrician with Medical Doctors Associates at Pediatricare Associates of New Jersey since 2005. Outside of the field of medicine, she has an interest in culinary arts. Leah Alexander has been featured on Healthline, Verywell Fit, Romper, and other high profile publications.