Babies and temperament

Are all babies the same when they are born? Do they have a particular unique personality, apparent just after birth??

Science has ruled in favour of the second. Babies divulge their personalities to whoever wants to see them from an early age. Temperament is a useful concept for parents, helping them understand the individuality of their child early on. Temperament refers to the characteristic way each baby reacts to his environment.

More specifically:

  • Does the baby have stable biological rhythms? Does he easily get used to routine? On the one hand, some babies get used to specific sleeping or eating routines easily, and function by the clock. On the other hand, many infants, even after the first few months of life, have unstable schedules, are never hungry, and never sleep at the same time every day.
  • How does the baby react to new stimuli? At one end of the spectrum, are babies who easily accept everything new. At the other end, are infants who tend to react and reject new faces and situations.
  • How quickly do they adapt? Some infants do not show any signs of distress in different environments. Others become irritable the minute their routine changes, they go for a trip in the car, or find themselves in a new place.
  • How kinetically active is your baby? Some babies seem to be content to observe the world from an interior view, without much movement. Others never keep still, moving their arms and legs, and trying to grab whatever is in front of them.
  • How strong do stimuli have to be to cause the baby to react? On the one hand, some babies are only disturbed or bothered by loud noises or conversation, when they are very tired. On the other hand, there are infants who become upset by even the slightest touch, the slightest sound of a voice, or by a nappy change.
  • How intensely does the baby tend to react? At one end of the spectrum are babies who just whimper a little, are not demanding, and do not scream. Infants at the other end of the spectrum attract attention from early on, express themselves intensively, and if their wants are not satisfied immediately, they scream.
  • What is your little one’s mood usually like?  Some babies appear happy, smiling, and positive all the time. Others cry very easily, grumble, and rarely laugh.
  • How easily is your baby’s attention distracted? Some little ones stare at whatever interests them, and stay focused listening to your conversations from an early age. Others move all the time from one stimulus to another, and do not keep still, even for a second.
  • How persistent is your baby? One infant will do his best to grab a dangling teddy bear with his hand, trying patiently and persistently for quite a while. Another will get annoyed about not being able to grab it after just a few seconds, or will turn his interest to something else.

Research has shown that most of these characteristics of each individual child are more or less stable, and apparent from the first weeks of life, and are not easily influenced by his parents and environment after birth. Genes, environmental factors in utero, conditions at birth and in the critical first few hours and days, all have their share in defining temperament of an individual baby.

How can parents’ knowledge of their child’s temperament help?

If you observe your child according to the above, you will get to know him better, and be able to predict his reactions more successfully. You will understand and accept parts of your child’s personality without feeling responsible for influencing them with your actions.

Understanding the individuality and uniqueness of each baby will help you avoid pointless comparisons: ‘Why doesn’t he react like my older son?’ ‘Why doesn’t he sleep peacefully throughout the night like the neighbour’s baby?’ ‘Why is he such a difficult child?’, which automatically lead to guilt: ‘What am I doing wrong?

Finally, it is important to adapt your behaviour, and the way you handle your child to his own individual characteristics, as much as possible. If you anticipate a completely different child and handle him as such, it is more likely that communication, behavioural and emotional problems will emerge in the course of time. If your baby’s routine has a tendency to be chaotic, and you are fanatic followers of strict routine, incongruities will arise, opposition and discrepancies that will only cause problems in the future.

Stelios Papaventsis Paediatrician MRCPCH DCH IBCLC 2010

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