When you change your baby's diaper, does he make a distressed face that seems to say, "Hey, Mommy, get your hands off my bottom," and wave his tiny fists in the air? Or does he smile and coo as if getting a new nappy is one more blissful moment in his Disneyland day? Either way, your child is giving you a snapshot of his personality. "Temperament is something you're born with, and it often remains consistent throughout your life," says Linda Dunlap, Ph.D., professor of developmental psychology at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, New York. A recent study at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, bears this out: Babies who were very fussy at 3 to 4 weeks old were more likely to have anxiety problems by the time they were tweens.
Still, temperament isn't set in stone. Studies at Harvard University tested to see how infants reacted to unfamiliar sights, sounds, and people, and then monitored them as they grew up. The 10 percent of babies on either end of the spectrum -- those who got very upset when exposed to new things and those who hardly reacted at all -- tended to retain their high-strung or laid-back personas as young adults. But the personalities of the roughly 80 percent of babies who fell somewhere in the middle were more likely to change over time. "Just because your 1-year-old bursts into tears at the drop of a hat doesn't mean he's going to grow up to be a kid who cries all the time," says Ross Thompson, Ph.D., professor of developmental psychology at the University of California-Davis. "As his brain matures, he may learn to control his emotions better."
While much of a baby's personality is genetically programmed, his environment also has an important influence. The way a parent responds to a child's easygoing or demanding nature can either reinforce his basic temperament or help to moderate it. Kids who go with the flow tend to get rewarded for their easy behavior. "But when a baby is difficult, his parents may say things like, 'Will you lie still so I can get that diaper on you?'" explains Kevin Leman, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author of The Birth Order Book. Taking that tone can actually make your child more defiant and argumentative.
Keep in mind that there's a positive side to every personality. Demanding babies can grow up to be driven, highly successful adults. And when a shy, clingy infant becomes more confident and independent, you may find yourself missing the snuggling from the early days.
What you can do now: If you recognize early on that your child becomes overly distressed when someone other than you picks him up or when he has to take a bath, look for ways to make him feel secure and happy. That could mean establishing a lovey to help him get through stressful transitions or giving him sponge baths instead of making him go into the tub. However, once your child is a toddler, slowly introducing him to novel situations, like a group playdate or a new babysitter, will help him learn to accept them.
No matter what your baby's temperament seems to be, it's important to avoid labeling him as such, advises Michele Borba, Ed.D., a Parents advisor and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. If you constantly tell people, "Dylan's a cranky boy," they may expect your child to act that way, and your statement could wind up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.