Much of your baby’s demeanor is decided genetically before he’s even left the gate. Still, the impact of his home environment and family dynamics can’t be overstated. Nature and nurture combine forces to uniquely influence the individual your baby will become.
While it’s unfair to tattoo a label on your buckaroo when his rodeo’s just begun, recognizing his innate tendencies can help you perfect your parenting approach, allowing you to help him reach his potential. Some tendencies will pass in time (for example, separation anxiety is a phase unlikely to persist past toddlerhood), while other traits, such as energy level and emotional intensity, are long- lasting. As the parent, you’re there to help your child corral his personality and make the most of what he’s been given.
The temperamental luck of the draw
Baby’s temperament is present at birth (and perhaps even in the womb), but you might not see it for the first little while. Helen F. Neville, RN, author of Is This a Phase? Child Development & Parent Strategies, Birth to 6 Years, says she doesn’t even attempt to identify temperament until baby is at least 4 months old. At that point, baby is past the early “fetus-like” behavior and more the kid he will be going forward. When categorizing temperament, psychologists group babies into three broad categories: easy, slow-to-warm-up and difficult.
Easy babies are less energetic and more even-tempered than their more demanding peers. They’re predictable, they easily adapt to new situations, and they’re typically cheerful.
Slow-to-warm-up babies, by definition, take a little longer to embrace new envi- ronments and people. They have ups and downs, and they may be more challenging in certain areas—they might have high energy, high sensitivity or trouble adapting to unfamiliar environments, for example.
Difficult (or “spirited”) babies might struggle when they are confronted with anything new. Their eating and sleeping schedules can be sporadic. Spirited babies exhibit high energy and elevated emotions; they tend toward tantrums and grow frustrated easily. The truly difficult or spirited child exhibits these traits past the first three months (when such behavior could be dismissed as temporary “colic”).
Of course, these three broad categories hardly begin to describe the wide variety of personalities we encounter. In fact, personality combinations are practically endless. For the sake of quantifiable comparison, psychologists typically use nine areas of measurement to study baby’s temperament. In each area, babies are rated low to high or anywhere in between.
Is baby’s energy level lower (easy) or higher (more difficult)?
- RHYTHMICITY (Regularity)
Does baby eat, sleep and dirty diapers on a predictable schedule?
- APPROACH OR WITHDRAWAL (Initial Reaction or Curiosity)
Is baby cautious or bold in the face of new people and scenarios?
How long does it take baby to adjust to a new place or schedule?
Are baby’s reactions calm or highly emotional?
Is baby’s default demeanor sunny or stormy?
- PERSISTENCE AND ATTENTION SPAN (Reaction to Frustration)
Can he stick with a task when faced with frustrations?
Is baby easily distracted from his task?
- SENSORY THRESHOLD (Sensitivity)
Is baby easily bothered by noises, lights or textures?
In order to gauge your baby’s traits, you will need to compare his behavior with what you’ve seen from other babies. When you observe differences between your tot and others, remember that everyone (adults included) has strengths and weaknesses. And sometimes, supposed weaknesses might even indicate future strengths—for example, babies who are remarkably intense and sensitive are often gifted learners with high IQ scores.
Appreciate baby’s strong points, and take note of areas where baby could use some extra help and patience. Rahil Briggs, PsyD, associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and director of the Healthy Steps Program at Montefiore Medical Group, says, “A very important aspect of parenting is to be a close and careful observer of your child … and to use those observations to help create an environment that capitalizes on strengths and shores up weaker areas.”
The home arena
Neville compares personality to a layer cake: The bottom layer is inborn temperament, but life circum- stances and experiences pile on additional layers to form the person baby will become. In his early years, he’s observing you constantly, learning behaviors and routines. The relationships he observes influence his expectations for relationships throughout his life. In order to thrive, baby needs to feel loved, to garner approval and to get plenty of hugs as he grows. You set the tone for his early sense of self-worth.
Birth order matters, too. “Every time a child is born, the entire family environment changes,” says Kevin Leman, PhD, author of The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are. “How parents interact with each child as he or she enters the family circle determines in great part that child’s final destiny.” Birth order psychology explains the patterns commonly found among siblings—the eldest plays the serious, responsible perfectionist; the youngest is the fun- loving, affectionate people person; and the middle child is the secretive, independent mediator who can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. While there are many, many exceptions to these norms (gender and age gaps definitely factor in), the stereotypes persist because they are accurate so often.
If you want to combat the birth order trends, pay special attention to your relationship with each child. Are you putting too much pressure on your eldest? Do you let the youngest child get away with murder? Do you, even subconsciously, overlook your middle child? If so, make an effort to level the playing field by giving each child individual love and attention. Also remember that siblings are prone to rivalry. A child’s interests and behaviors will be influenced as he compares himself to siblings (especially the sibling just above him in the birth order) and chooses to either compete or go his own way.