Your baby's temperament

The parent-baby fit

Parents are amazed, and occasionally dismayed, by the unmistakable individuality of babies. How can a tiny ten-pound bundle know with such certainty what she wants? What makes one baby quiet and observant, while his cousin is active and exuberant? It is one of the grand mysteries of life.

Living with that mystery begins by acknowledging that your baby, no matter how young, has her own temperament, and you do too. How those two temperaments “fit” is a complex and lifelong exploration. With care it will be a symphony. You will bring out the clear notes in your baby’s score, and she will mellow and modulate yours – for parents grow with their babies.

“Temperament” describes a baby’s basic disposition or style, like a bias that colours the way she responds to her environment. This disposition is largely inborn; it may even be obvious (and obviously different from her sibling’s) within days of her birth.

While our basic temperament tends to persist throughout life, this doesn’t mean we don’t change. As we grow up and become socialized, we learn how to behave so others will respond to us in ways we like. We develop a personality – a characteristic way of presenting ourselves to others.

A complex synergy of a baby’s inborn disposition and her environment (that is, the family she lives with, the cultural values of her society) contribute to her ultimate personality. How a child learns to “live with” who she is depends, in part, on how well the parenting she receives fits with her temperament.

“I gotta be me, who else can I be?”

In the 1950s a team of psychologists developed a scale of nine temperamental characteristics that could be identified in babies:

  • activity level
  • regularity of sleeping and eating patterns
  • adaptability to change
  • acceptance of new experiences (“approach-withdrawal”)
  • sensitivity
  • intensity of reaction
  • distractibility
  • persistence
  • usual mood (negative or positive)

These characteristics cluster into three or four temperament types or basic styles. Most parents can see where on each scale their baby lands, and many would recognize whether their child is easy, high need (the researchers’ original term was “difficult”), or slow to warm up. Alicia Lieberman, author of The Emotional Life of the Toddler, adds the active toddler to the list.

Individual babies fall between and overlap many of the categories: Most babies have a “shy” time around eight months, and many have “difficult” periods, especially as they are about to develop a new skill like crawling or walking.

A label in itself isn’t a useful tool. In fact it can have a crippling effect if parents focus on the label instead of their baby’s unique qualities. But it can be a useful way to explain your parenting approach to the world: Saying “he’s a high-need baby” or “she’s really active” tells members of your support system that your baby has individual needs, and you are taking care of them.

Sometimes parents hesitate to accommodate a baby’s temperament because they worry that if they “give in” to their child’s disposition, they will entrench “bad habits.” James Hymes, in Your Child under Six (Consortium, 1994), describes our “awe of habits.” We fear that if we allow a baby or toddler to develop bad habits, she will always have those habits. We forget that she is only temporarily little: She won’t have the same needs or the same behaviours when she is four, or ten, or 20.

When a baby cries to be held, or a toddler whines for your undivided attention, they are expressing needs. When you respond in a positive way, your child learns that he is capable of communicating his feelings, and that he can trust you to help him. These two lessons are the touchstones of effective parenting. They give a child the base of security and confidence that will allow him to learn, as he grows, more mature ways of expressing himself.

Parents: Know Yourself

Your own temperament flavours your reaction to your baby. Are you easygoing or exacting? Contemplative or active? Do you relish company or long for time alone? An active baby may be fun and exciting for one parent, but exhausting to another; a baby who seems quiet and “good” to a low-key parent may seem unresponsive to a high-energy extrovert. It’s the chemistry of parents and baby combined that determines whether the fit is easy or challenging.

As you consider your baby’s temperament, you may find yourself thinking, “I was just like that,” or “How did two couch potatoes like us end up with a dynamo like her?” Perhaps you were extremely persistent as a child, but were taught that being “stubborn” is unacceptable.

Having a strong-willed baby may bring you in touch with who you were, and who you are. As parents come to understand the temperament of their child, they have a chance to better understand themselves, too.

A special challenge: the high-need baby

Some babies come into the world with an especially intense and sensitive temperament. They cry a lot, they react intensely to any irritation or discomfort, they want to be carried and nursed constantly, they fall asleep with difficulty and never for long. Dr. William Sears, in The Fussy Baby, emphasizes that the behaviour of these babies is based on needs. Because they have higher-than-average needs, these babies need more – and more sensitive – parenting.

While there is no “recipe” for calming a high-need baby (parents develop myriad intricate techniques!), it is important to respond in some way: A need that’s ignored doesn’t go away. In fact, parents of high-need babies commonly observe that the longer they wait to respond, the more upset and difficult to soothe their child becomes.

How you treat yourself is crucial, too. Parents of a high-need baby have to look after themselves – otherwise they burn out from the long hours and intense interactions. Support, from people who understand, is an absolute necessity.

Making a good fit: coming together

“Fit” describes the way a baby’s environment – that is, her parents and other caregivers – accommodates her temperament. Parents make the fit good by expecting a baby to behave in a way that feels “right” for her: they expect their shy toddler to take awhile to get used to playgroup; they anticipate that their active baby will tear around Gram’s house; they understand why their slow-to-warm-up baby is upset by a new caregiver. Good fit starts with acceptance: Your child’s behaviour reflects the way she feels. No one chooses a temperament, it just is.

What challenges some parents is not the temperament of their baby, but their own expectations. If you dream of a cuddly baby nestled in your arms, and the reality turns out to be a fussy baby who arches her back when you hold her, that can be hard to accept. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Raising Your Spirited Child, suggests that you may have to mourn that dream baby. You can’t make your baby into someone different. The only thing to do is say goodbye to the dream child, and focus in a positive way on your real child.

Another key is support. Rosemary Liston’s baby, Sarah, was a sensitive soul, and she cried a lot. Liston remembers: “Every time she cried I was hysterical. I had no one to tell me how much crying was normal.” Having a shaky support system puts a great deal of pressure on the baby-parent fit. Sources of support can be as close as a partner or neighbour who will provide a sounding board or baby care – sometimes a very small break will be enough to regain perspective. Many municipalities have a resource centre where new parents can get together and share experiences: It’s very reassuring to know others have the same experience as you!

Think of your child. Think of a sweater. If it’s too tight across the shoulders, the sleeves don’t go much past your elbows, and the wool is scratchy, you can’t really think about anything but how uncomfortable the sweater is. You don’t notice the view, you can’t hear the radio, you can’t concentrate on your book because you are distracted by the constraints of the sweater. You are stressed.

It works much the same way for your child. If the expectations in her environment don’t respect her temperament, if she doesn’t “feel right” because her needs are not accepted, then the creative energy that should go into learning about her world goes instead into struggling with a fit that binds. The sweater will be just too scratchy. So give a bit. Give a lot. Make your child’s sweater roomy and comfortable. Acceptance is a wonderful gift – a gift she’ll never outgrow.

Lana: “Intense Needs”

“Lana wanted to nurse all the time, but the slightest noise bothered her when she nursed. And when she finally did settle down for a (short!) nap, there was no way to do anything while she slept because the noise would wake her, screaming. Every reaction seemed like a huge overreaction. I tried every tape we had, and found John Prine soothed her, though not every time, and not for long.”

The parents and the fit: Lana is a baby with lots of needs, and she told her parents about those needs by crying. Lana’s parents set aside images of easy babies, tidy houses and quiet mealtimes, focused on Lana and her needs, and tried not to take it personally. It took patience, energy and concentration to help Lana through her infancy. Lana’s mother also looked for the positive in Lana’s temperament, and there she found a certain kinship: As a potter, she sees how sensitivity can mature into an artistic nature. That helps – some.

Adam: “So Easy”

“Adam is so easy. He goes to sleep whenever he’s tired, wherever he is. I can pick him up asleep, put him in his car seat, take him shopping, pile groceries on him and bring him home again. He’ll still be sleeping.”

The parents and the fit: Adam’s parents are delighted at how predictable and adaptable he is. Because an easy child’s needs tend to mesh well with parents’ expectations, things usually roll along smoothly. Occasionally, says Dr. Sears, a baby can be so accommodating that his needs get lost, and he becomes more demanding as a result: “Hey! Just because I’m easygoing, don’t forget about me!”

Ray-Ray: “Clear the Decks”

“Ray-Ray’s motto is ‘born to run.’ He doesn’t do anything at medium, everything is fast. He wakes up at six, ready for the Olympics. When we go outside, we use the back door so there’s time to catch him before he hits the street – if he gets to the street alone, he’s off. Most of our house looks like a big empty gym. We’ve blocked off the entertainment centre, and we put the kitchen chairs up on the table between meals so he can’t climb up on the table.”

The parents and the fit: Ray-Ray hit his family like a lightning bolt. At first, his parents wondered why Ray-Ray was so “bad.” They thought that perhaps they had been too permissive when he was a baby. Now they realize he just has a lot of energy and curiosity. They have tried to structure their family life so he doesn’t run into trouble. They have fenced the yard, childproofed the house, and Dad provides a long, long play at the park daily. In general they have readjusted their expectations and Ray-Ray fits in just fine.

Brianna: “Taking it Slow”

“Brianna is really pretty easy – until something new or unexpected comes up. Then she’s like Ms. Hyde. New food, new places, new people disrupt her in a major way. I thought playgroup was going to be a complete no-go: a group of toddlers she didn’t know in a place she hadn’t been before. But after weeks and weeks on my knee she got into it a bit, and now she enjoys herself there.”

The parent and the fit: Brianna’s mom was shy as a child, so she is very empathetic to Brianna’s temperament. She allows her daughter to get comfortable with new situations over a long period – staying around so Brianna can come over for a reassuring hug if she needs to. Because Brianna’s mom gives her the time and support she needs, Brianna can feel she is coping and learn to enjoy new experiences.

Resources

The Emotional Life of the Toddler, by Alicia Lieberman, Free Press (Cdn. distributor Distican), 1995.

The Fussy Baby, by William Sears, MD, The Growing Family Series, La Leche League International, 1987.

If you feel your own childhood experience is impeding a good fit with your baby, Jean Illsley Clarke and Connie Dawson’s Growing Up Again: Parenting Ourselves, Parenting Our Children (Harper & Row, 1989) will help smooth out uneven parenting, past and present.

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