Your friend’s baby is very placid and rarely cries. In contrast, your baby is easily upset. The difference could have more to do with each baby’s temperament than parenting. Identifying your baby’s temperament type may help you to feel more confident about your parenting decisions.
What does temperament mean?
The part of personality your baby was born with is called temperament. A baby's temperament is displayed by the way he consistently behaves in relation to what's happening to him and around him (both inside his body and outside).
Baby temperament is often classified into 3 broad groups...
- Easy-going - where little bothers him.
- Sensitive - where he definitely has his limits.
- Intense - where it can appear like every little thing upsets him.
Sometimes known as a 'placid' baby. This is how we all picture our baby to be when we're pregnant. Your easy-going baby...
- Has a predictable routine.
- Has regular body functions.
- Reacts only mildly to things that disturb him.
- Rarely cries. When he does he can easily be calmed.
- Lies quietly enjoying his world. When he's had enough he drifts off to sleep.
- Readily adapts to changing situations or changes in routine.
- Is happy wherever he goes. You can take him anywhere.
Also referred to as a 'touchy', 'fussy' or 'slow-to-warm up' baby. Your sensitive baby...
- Shows avoidance or distress in response to new experiences.
- Can be comforted in some way when he cries... most times. However, he may experience episodes where he finds it difficult to calm, even with your help.
- Does not tolerate changes in routine very well e.g. a 'big day out' shopping or visiting will upset him.
- Can be difficult to feed at times.
- Has 'had enough' by the end of the day and lets you know in no uncertain terms.
Often referred to as 'spirited', 'high needs', 'difficult' or 'grumpy' baby. Your intense baby...
- Has an irregular routine.
- Has irregular bodily functions (i.e. poops at different times).
- Rarely seems happy and hardly smiles.
- Cries a lot - loudly and intensely.
- Is difficult to soothe when fussy.
- May not settle to sleep without being constantly rocked.
- Doesn't sleep well and is easily awoken.
- May reject or withdraw from anything new.
- Adapts slowly to change.
- Often reacts strongly to bright lights, loud or sudden noises.
- Doesn't like to be handled at times; may fuss or cry when you bath him or change his diaper or clothing.
- Appears to cry non-stop for no particular reason.
- Can often not be comforted once he has become 'worked up'.
- May develop feeding difficulties, which involve fussiness or rejecting feeds.
- Requires a lot of your attention. Parents of irritable babies are often exhausted and feel they are at their 'wit's end'.
Can temperament change?
Temperament is an inherited set of personality traits that persist over time. During the early months of life it may appear like your baby's temperament is changing, but in reality it's his behavior that is changing and not his temperament.
Factors that can influence a baby's behavior besides temperament include...
- Level of maturity. Babies are born with an immature nervous system and digestive system. As a result babies (particularly those under the age of 3 months) can easily become overstimulated and/or may experience gastric discomfort as a direct result of how feeding is managed or an inappropriate diet. This in turn, will understandably affect a baby's behavior.
- Stage of development. A change in behavior can be a result of learning a new developmental skill. In addition a child's level of cognitive development (thinking processes) influences how he interprets the world around him and therefore how he behaves, an example of this is 'separation anxiety'.
- State of health. Anything that affects your child's health, such as inadequate nutrition, physical illness, medical conditions or disabilities can result in behavioral change.
- Well-being. As a helpless baby or dependent child, well being is reliant on others, this includes parents and/or caregivers. How care is provided can greatly impact on a baby's level of contentment. Minor changes to the way care is proved can result in major changes in your baby's behavior, both positively and negatively.
Note: This list is by no means complete. It is provided merely to explain that temperament is not the only thing that influences your baby's behavior.
Your baby's behaviour may change as his nervous system and digestive system mature, so it's not always possible to tell what his temperament is like until around the age of 3 or 4 months. Even well beyond that age, your child's true temperament may continue to be disguised by anything that affects his health and/or well being.
Blaming temperament can be a mistake!
Where no physical symptoms are visible to explain a baby's distress, it has become popular these days to simplistically label difficult behavior (which is commonly seen in healthy infants) as due to 'temperament'. Although temperament will influence how a baby behaves, temperament is not the cause of a baby's difficult or distressed behavior. In other words, temperament may explain why some babies react more intensely than others, but it does not explain what a baby is reacting to.
The reality is, distressed behavior displayed by 'sensitive' or 'fussy' babies is rarely due to a single reason rather due to a combination of different reasons (see crying baby and infant colic for examples). There are many reasons for distressed behavior that involve no physical symptoms.
By making a 'diagnosis' of temperament to explain a baby's distressed behavior has the benefit of making parents feel better, in that 'their baby's behavior is not their fault'. But it can also lead to a sense of powerlessness that 'behavior difficulties need to be accepted as they cannot be changed' - which is quite untrue.
You can't change your child's temperament but that does not mean you can't influence a change in his behavior. While a baby's temperament will influence how he behaves to what is happening to him (both inside his body and outside), you have control over what happens to him and around him, and in doing so can influence his behavior. By understanding your baby's temperament you can adapt the way in which you provide care to work with his temperament, rather than unknowingly working against it.
Written by Rowena Bennett