Infant Temperament

Christine Sweeney, LICSW Program Manager, Parent Connection, BIDMC

JULY 26, 2019

Fussy Baby with MotherIt's a common description I often hear, parent's report feeling lucky, that they have a "good" baby. The translation of "good" meaning that their baby is easy to care for. S/he only cries when she is hungry, tired, needs a diaper change, and is easy to soothe, and overall, pretty easy to understand his/her cues. These parents, having heard from friends and family about other babies who are not so easy, know how good they've got it.

These infant behaviors are really a description of inborn traits called temperament. As adults, most of us have a pretty good idea of our own temperaments, if we tend to be outgoing or more reserved in social situations, if we readily jump in to a new experience or tend to hang back to first assess before plunging in, if we thrive on noise and crowds or if we much prefer a quieter environment… you get the picture.

Few of us, however, tend to think about these tendencies when it comes to our babies. When my son was born, I had read a lot about the importance of providing babies adequate stimulation so as to promote learning and healthy brain development. I read books, played music, talked and sang to him constantly, and I couldn’t figure out why he was so frequently cranky. It took me a while to recognize and understand that I was over stimulating him. His temperament was such that he was very easily overwhelmed, and really needed me to tone myself way down. Once I figured that out, he and I were much happier.

Researchers Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas were among the first to identify temperamental traits in babies and young children which they describe as:

  • Activity—referring to physical motion during sleep, play, bathing, with a range of Low Energy to High Energy
  • Adaptability—as identified with how comfortable baby glides through daily transitions such as waking or falling asleep, with ranges of High vs. Low Adaptability
  • Frustration Reaction—On the persistent end of this range, baby waits patiently for milk while infants who are easily frustrated demand to be fed instantly and are upset if the milk flows too fast or too slow
  • Approach to new things—on the High end of the spectrum, baby readily tries out new food while on the cautious end of the scale, baby will hesitate or spit out a new food
  • Intensity of Emotions—with a range of Mellow to Dramatic
  • Mood—Parents describe their happy baby as she wakes up smiling, while her more somber sister tends to fuss upon waking and throughout the day
  • Regularity—the Predictable infant seems to have an automatic schedule, while another more Irregular baby seems to have no predictable pattern of eating or sleeping
  • Sensitivity—infants with low sensitivity sleep through parties, and aren’t bothered by changes in temperature, textures or touch, while infants with high sensitivity are easily upset

For more information a worthwhile read is, Know Your Child: An Authoritative Guide for Today’s Parents by Stella Chess, MD and Alexander Thomas, MD.

Understanding your baby's temperament can be really helpful as it gives you a better understanding of how to approach your baby as well as helping to ease your own feelings of frustration, and lack of confidence in your parenting ability. For those parents lucky to have a baby with an easy inborn temperament, they are just that, lucky, not necessarily more skilled than parents who may be struggling with a baby whose newborn temperament is more of a challenge.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.