It’s Not You, It’s Your Baby

Understanding your child will help you be a happier parent

Children come into the world with personalities as unique as their thumbprint. But, you wouldn’t know that from reading a baby book (or listening to a well-meaning relative), because so much advice about how to take care of babies is based on the assumption that all babies will react the same.

But your baby came to you with some innate ways of reacting to his brave new world, and understanding his temperament will help you better respond to his needs – and handle his reactions when his personality asserts itself in difficult ways.

Temperamental traits are organized into three behavioral styles: difficult, easy, and slow to warm up. Most babies are a mixture of all three, often showing one a little more strongly than another.

Babies with easy temperaments quickly adjust to new situations, establish routines, and calm down. They usually have predictable sleeping and eating patterns, and when they cry, it's not hard for parents to figure out (and solve) the problem.

Babies with difficult temperaments are slow to adjust to new experiences, likely to react negatively and intensely to stimuli and change, and may be just plain fussy. Parents often find that difficult babies have unpredictable sleeping and eating patterns long after other babies have settled into routines. And they will need extra support from their caregivers to gain confidence and ease later in life.

Babies who are slow to warm up initially react in a similar way as difficult babies, but became somewhat easier over time. Like difficult babies, they are sensitive to stimuli and new situations and people. (An older child with these traits would be called shy.) But these babies come out of their shell as they mature and tend to do well with some extra reassurance and security from a sensitive and attuned caregiver.

Understanding your child's temperament can be a great relief to parents, especially if your child is difficult. Rather than worrying that you aren't doing it "right," you can come to understand that your child was just born less easy to please.

How does your temperament fit with your child's?
Another element that influences your relationship with your child is how your baby's temperament fits with your own temperament. For example, a shy parent may be well suited to a baby that's slow to warm up. Each may approach new situations and people cautiously, so together they can hang back and take the time to observe and adjust to new situations.

And an experienced parent with confidence in her parenting skills might do very well with a difficult and fussy baby, while a first-time parent may initially be very discouraged by a difficult baby.

If you and your baby don't have a comfortable fit right off the bat, don't worry. By getting acquainted with your baby’s patterns and becoming more aware of your own personality, you can adjust yourself to his needs. This can be especially important with a difficult baby.

Understanding that the trouble he has settling down or accepting change is not about you, and learning to remain calm in the face of these difficulties helps him gain trust in you and the world around him. This will help him develop the ability to self soothe.

Working with your child's temperament for a happier fit
Developing your relationship with your baby is like dancing with a partner – you will influence each other's behavior, and occasionally there will be missteps. When this happens, don't blame yourself or your child, and don't worry about how you could have avoided them. Making mistakes is how people learn and get to know each other. And babies are not capable of changing their needs for another person, so it's up to you to pay attention, learn, and adjust.

Notice how different environments affect your baby. Watch for patterns and problem areas. For example, your child may be social, playful, and affectionate at home, but freeze up and cling to your legs around new people. You may even find that his social skills flourish at home, but seem to diminish when he is at a playgroup. Or maybe your toddler resists your direction but is more agreeable if you can figure out a way to make a suggestion seem like his idea.

Try not to make judgments about your baby’s temperament. Think of yourself as an anthropologist whose job it is to understand and accept this new person, and then find a way to meet his needs so you both have an easier time.

Tips for different working with different temperaments

Easy temperament. Because a child with an easy temperament is less likely to complain loudly or express his needs adamantly, you may need to pay closer attention to him. For example, if your baby is not especially fussy, you may not pick him up as often as he needs you to at this age. Or you might not notice he's getting sick until he's running a fever. So just be sure to check in with him from time to time, even if he doesn't seem to need anything.

As your child grows, encourage him to assert himself and speak up. Let him know you will listen to him and be supportive when he does.

Difficult temperament. Remember that you're not the only one struggling to parent a fussy child, and there are things you can do to make his life (and yours) a little easier. Rather than fighting his temperament, be flexible and patient in your interactions.

When he is a baby, care for him in a consistent way and stick to a schedule. The predictability of routine helps your baby anticipate what's coming next so he feels in control. With a greater sense of control, he'll have less anxiety and will be able to make smoother transitions. Also provide plenty of opportunities for peaceful rest.

As your child becomes a toddler, do your best to stay calm when he gets worked up. Don't try to control his behavior or teach a lesson during a tantrum. Instead, stay calm, soothe him, and wait for him to come out of it. When the storm has passed, help him identify and label his feelings. And when he has fully recovered is the time to talk about his behavior and set limits.

Slow to warm up. Make your baby's life predictable. Let his primary care providers know they need to be a secure base for your child as he begins to explore his world. For instance, when you take him on a play date, stay close by until he is completely comfortable and ready to leave your side. Once he does, greet him warmly when he comes back to check in.

As your child grows, offer him additional preparation and support for upcoming events. Anticipate that he might need you to accompany or stay with him in a new situation until he feels secure. Prepare for transitions, such as potty training, beforehand by talking or reading about it or watching a video before diving in and presenting the potty.

Always be kind to yourself
Gaining a better understanding of your child's temperament should help you feel less guilt when your little one screams through a mommy and me yoga class or throws a tantrum in the grocery store. And when you are able to stop blaming yourself, you become a better parent and enjoy the job more. Your child does better, giving you feedback that you are actually are doing a good job.