Monday, November 30, 2009

Babies with Personality! How Temperament Influences Babies' Relationships (Part I)

In previous posts, we’ve described behaviors seen in every baby such as states, cues, and changing sleep patterns. Of course, every parent knows that babies are individuals, full of special qualities solely their own. Parents spend much of the first few months of their babies’ lives learning, often the hard way, about their newborns’ “temperament,” the special combination of traits that form each baby’s unique personality. Some of these traits are ingrained in babies at birth and others are influenced by their interactions with the world around them.

In this post, we’ll describe some of the traits commonly used by researchers and health care providers to assess infants’ temperament. This list is not complete and different researchers and doctors can have different names for some of these traits. We are using this list only to give you an idea of some of the specific traits you might want to look for in your baby. Before I go over the details, you should know that many babies’ traits change over time, some shift slightly and others change radically. No matter how well we think we know our children, there are always a few surprises around the corner.

Some of the Elements of Temperament

1. Activity refers to how much babies move around when given a chance. A highly active baby will be constantly on the move, kicking his legs and squirming excitedly as a newborn and climbing up on anything he can when he gets older. The less active newborn will be content to lie quietly watching a mobile or sit in your lap listening to a several books when she gets older.
2. Regularity refers to how easily babies develop and stick with routines. Babies with more regularity develop their own internal rhythms, tending to eat, sleep, and play at consistent times throughout the day and night. Other babies just can’t seem to settle into a schedule no matter how much parents work on developing a steady routine.
3. Approach-Withdrawal refers to the willingness of babies to interact with new people, toys, or environments. Some babies are excited to see new faces and places, others shy away, burrow into mom or dad’s shoulder or turn away from any new person or activity.
4. Adaptability refers to how quickly babies’ adjust to new experiences. Even babies who initially withdraw from new situations will differ in how long it takes before they get comfortable. Adaptable babies will settle down quickly when they meet new people or are brought to new places. Less adaptable babies take a long time to feel comfortable in new situations.
5. Intensity refers to the strength of babies’ emotions when dealing with the world around them. Some babies shriek hysterically when they are unhappy and others just whine. Happy babies can show differences in intensity too! Some happy babies will giggle with glee while others just smile.
6. Sensory Threshold refers to how much sensory input is needed to get a response from a baby. Some babies are highly sensitive to noises, smells, and bright lights while others are not.
7. Distractibility refers to how easily babies can be distracted from unpleasant or dangerous things. For example, some babies are easily redirected away from the dog’s water dish by a toy or a book and others will keep crawling back, no matter what parents do to distract them.
8. Attention Span refers to how long babies stay focused on something that interests them. Some children are content to play with blocks or a single toy for a long time, others quickly shift their attention from one toy or activity to another.

To help you get a better picture of how these traits fit together, I’ll tell you about my own babies (they are both in their 20s now). In an earlier post, I told you that my daughter was a persistent crier (for about 4 months), and I learned later she had a very low sensory threshold. She was active, but not overly so, intense in her responses (both happy and sad), slow to approach new situations, but quite adaptable once she was familiar with people or places. She thrived on routine and developed consistent patterns for sleeping and eating quite early in her life. She had a surprisingly long attention span and was never distractible if she really wanted something.

In contrast, my son was highly active, rarely cried, was not as intense as his sister in his responses to the world, loved new people and places, had a relatively high sensory threshold, and was easily distracted away from dangerous things. Like his sister, he had a long attention span. He also adapted readily to new situations but was not very good about eating and sleeping according to any kind of routine.

Surprisingly, very different temperaments can emerge in children from the same family. My daughter might have been considered a more “difficult” baby than my son but her intense concentration and interest in the world has resulted in her being the scholar in the family. My highly active, adaptable son is one of the captains of his college baseball team.

If you know what to look for, infancy and childhood are full of hints about the adults your children will become. For now, learning about your baby’s temperament can help you feel a lot more confident that you are the expert when it comes to taking care of your baby.

Next time: We’ll take a closer look at how a baby’s temperament influences her relationships with her parents and other caregivers.

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