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Baby's Temperament

Consider these two babies, both from the same family, both girls:

  • The first infant is calm and quiet, happy to play by herself. She watches everything that happens around her, but rarely demands attention herself. Left on her own, she sleeps for long periods and eats infrequently.
  • The second baby is fussy and startles easily. She thrashes her arms and legs, moving almost constantly whether awake or asleep. While most newborns sleep fourteen hours a day, she sleeps only ten, and wakens whenever there’s the slightest activity nearby. She seems in a hurry to do everything at once and even eats in a rush, gulping her feedings and swallowing so much air that she needs frequent burping.

Both these babies are absolutely normal and healthy. One is no “better” than the other, but because their personalities are so far apart, the two will be treated very differently, right from birth.

Like these babies, your infant will demonstrate many unique personality traits from the earliest weeks of life. Discovering these traits is one of the most exciting parts of having a new baby. Is she very active and intense, or relatively slow-going? Is she timid when faced with a new situation, such as the first bath, or does she enjoy it? You’ll find clues to her personality in everything she does, from falling asleep to crying. The more you pay attention to these signals and learn to respond appropriately to her unique personality, the calmer and more predictable your life will be in the months to come.

While most of these early character traits are built into the newborn’s hereditary makeup, their appearance may be delayed if your baby is born quite prematurely. Premature babies don’t express their needs—such as hunger, fatigue, or discomfort—as clearly as other newborns. They may be extra sensitive to light, sound, and touch for several months. Even playful conversation may be too intense for them and cause them to become fussy and look away. When this happens, it’s up to the parent to stop and wait until the baby is alert and ready for more attention. Eventually most of these early reactions will fade away, and the baby’s own natural character traits will become more evident.

Babies who are less than 5.5 pounds or 2.5 kg at birth (low birth weight), even if they’re full term, also may be less responsive than other newborns. At first they may be very sleepy and not seem very alert. After a few weeks they seem to wake up, eating eagerly but still remaining irritable and hypersensitive to stimulation between feedings. This irritability may last until they grow and mature further.

From the very beginning, your baby’s temperamental traits will influence the way you treat her and feel about her. If you had specific ideas about child rearing before she was born, reevaluate them now to see if they’re really in tune with her character. The same goes for expert advice—from books, articles, and especially from well-meaning relatives and friends—about the “right way” to raise a child. The truth is, there is no right way that works for every child. You have to create your own guidelines based on your child’s unique personality, your own beliefs, and the circumstances of your family life. The important thing is to remain responsive to your baby’s individuality. Don’t try to box her into some previously set mold or pattern. Your baby’s uniqueness is her strength, and respecting that strength from the start will help lay the best possible foundation for her high self-esteem and for loving relationships with others.
Last Updated
Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 (Copyright © 2009 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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