Do you know your baby’s temperament?

Happy, difficult, fussy, sensitive ― babies have moods and personalities, too! Decode and learn how to handle their unique temperaments.

While all babies cry at some point or another because they are hungry, wet or tired, some do so more often ― at a greater intensity ― than others.

Some babies seem to take changes in their stride, while others get upset at the slightest shift in routine. What’s happening?

Believe it or not, even this young, babies would have already developed their own personalities. Each child has a different temperament or personal style which generally describes how he or she reacts to the world. Experts tell SmartParents that baby’s temperament would have developed while they are in the womb.

Says Zoe Chu, Singapore’s leading baby and child sleep consultant, “I believe children’s temperaments may have been set while they were in their mummy’s womb. Studies have increasingly shown that awake or asleep, unborn children are constantly tuned in to their mother’s every action, thought and feeling. Their experiences in the womb shape the brain and lay the groundwork for personality and emotional temperament.”

“It is unknown what causes the development of certain temperaments but we do know that even though temperaments do not change over time, a child’s behaviour can change as they grow up.”

Adds Dr Christelle Tan Xian-Ting, a paediatric medicine specialist at Raffles Children’s Centre, “It is unknown what causes the development of certain temperaments but we do know that even though temperaments do not change over time, a child’s behaviour can change as they grow up.”

This, she explains, is through social learning. “How parents or caregivers react to the child’s temperament may encourage or discourage certain behaviours. Also, how parents themselves are like at home plays an important part as the child grows older as children learn a lot by mimicking.”

In the 1960s, several New York psychologists launched the largest ever study of temperament. Spanning some 30 years, it studied 131 babies from 3 months till adulthood. At the end of the study, the researchers proposed the following nine temperament characteristics:

  1. Activity level: How active is your baby? Squirmy and active or relaxed and laidback?
  2. Rhythmicity: How predictable and regular is your baby’s sleeping and feeding cycles?
  3. Distractibility: How easily can your baby be distracted from something he or she is doing?
  4. Approach/Withdrawal: How does your baby respond to new people, situations or experiences? Does he or she brighten up or recoil?
  5. Adaptability: How well does your baby react to new situations? If your baby is disturbed, how quickly does he or she recover?
  6. Attention span/Persistence: Does your baby play with something for a while or does he or she move from toy to toy rather quickly?
  7. Intensity of reaction: When your baby is happy or upset, how loud can he or she be? What’s the intensity of the reaction?
  8. Sensitivity: How sensitive is your baby to flavours, smell, textures and noises?
  9. Quality of mood: In general, is your baby happy and positive most of the time or is he or she mostly in a negative mood?  

 

 

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The psychologists who did the study determined that babies have three major types of temperaments: Easy, difficult and slow to warm up. Some 40 per cent of babies and children have an easy temperament, while 10 per cent have a difficult nature. Between 5 and 15 per cent of babies and children are slow to warm up, while about 40 per cent of children have a combination of these qualities.

Learn details of these dispositions, plus, get tips on bringing out the best in your child:

1) EASY

These babies approach new situations readily and adapt easily to new environments and people. They react mildly and are generally happy and relaxed.


What you can do: While such babies are a joy and there seems very little parents should do with regard to their offspring’s natures and behaviour (so as not to rock the boat!), they should remember that consistency as a general approach is still key.  

Dr Tan says, “In early life, while temperament might largely influence behaviour, as a child grows older, their behaviour can change even if their temperament does not. This is largely due to learning of what is socially acceptable and what is not.”

Children also have very keen observation skills, she adds, and they will learn the usual reactions that parents or caregivers have to certain situations.

She explains, “It is a normal social milestone to learn through mimicking. In addition, children learn through their experiences and adapt according to what they observe. As such, even though their temperament does not change, their behaviour and reaction in certain scenarios might evolve over time.”

Most “difficult” babies I have come across are overtired children who have not been getting enough sleep. Hence, they are usually cranky, frustrated and clingy ― these moods are normal for overtired babies.

2) DIFFICULT

Difficult babies tend to withdraw from or are slow to adapt to new situations, they may have intense reactions or just be in a negative mood most of the time. They tend to have frequent crying episodes that may stretch on for a long time. Parents of difficult babies who have tried everything may be at their wits’ end wondering what they are doing wrong.

What you can do: As a mother of 13 children Tammy Hitchens has seen her fair share of “difficult” babies. “Desperation drives you to try anything ― window blackout blinds; music; wedges in beds; bath oils; massage techniques; sometimes, they wanted their ears rubbed; some wanted their feet to never be covered, or never exposed. Some wanted to be laid on their stomach with a towel underneath and others could only be upright,” she recalls.

As a first step, she recommends visiting the doctor to resolve any potential medical issues. “Speaking to a person who sees babies often can rapidly dismiss more serious possibilities and set you on a clearer path that doesn’t induce fear of further harm or missed diagnoses,” she said. And then, just “be calm and know that you will find solutions and this would not last forever”.

A lack of sleep or rest could also be a factor, Chu notes that most “difficult” babies she has come across are overtired children who have not been getting enough sleep.

She adds,” Hence, they are usually cranky, frustrated and clingy ― these moods are normal for overtired babies. When an adult is sleep deprived, he or she can also be just as moody and temperamental.”

 

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In Chu’s experience, clients who successfully sleep train their babies ― making sure that their children are well rested ― have happier kids who smile more. She adds, “They are also not as clingy and can play independently for longer periods.” Babies aged 6 to 12 months should be getting at least 13 to 14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, as recommended by the American National Sleep Foundation.

3) SLOW-TO-WARM-UP/SENSITIVE

These babies withdraw from or are slow to adapt to new things. They generally have a low level of activity and would be in a negative mood more often than easy babies. They are frequently thought of as shy or sensitive.

What you can do: Dr Tan notes, “If an infant is very sensitive to external changes like loud noises or bright lights, try to work around it by avoiding these sudden changes as much as possible. Of course, as the child grows older, parents can always work on teaching the child to adapt to unavoidable stimuli and to moderate their responses.”

It’s important not to force a child to do things. Hitchens says. “If your child hates to be splashed with water and you force it as a baby because you loved swimming and have heard babies should swim, it could end badly. Better to give space and try some gentle introduction at another stage. The same can be true of any trait.”

Understand that your child’s behaviour sometimes reflects their temperament but as their temperament is innate, avoid trying to blame it on them. Use an encouraging tone and never insist and force them to do something against their temperament.”

4) UNPREDICTABLE/BLENDED

Your little one’s behaviour can change. Also, when it comes to temperament, a large percentage of babies don’t belong strictly to a specific category, according to study mentioned above.

What you can do: Parents and caregivers should practise patience. Dr Tan suggests that parents learn to adapt to their child’s unpredictability and “go with the flow” if your little feeds or sleeps irregularly.

“Perhaps make sure milk is always ready to go, rather than trying to enforce a strict three-hourly or four-hourly feeding schedule. This might require, of course, a lot of patience, adjustment of expectations and logistical adjustments.”

Learn to work with your child’s natural temperament

Dr Tan advises parents to work around and accommodate their child’s temperament and not to change it.

She asserts, “Understand that your child’s behaviour sometimes reflects their temperament but as their temperament is innate, avoid trying to blame it on them. Use an encouraging tone and never insist and force them to do something against their temperament.”

Agreeing, Hitchens likens every child to a lump of clay that parents sculpt, rather than blank canvasses to be filled with paint. She points out, “If you talk to a potter, each lump has textures and strengths that ‘speak’ to you as you begin to attempt to mould it.”

Photos: iStock         

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