Temperamental Journey

Your baby's personality is as unique as his fingerprints. Unlock the mysteries of his disposition, and you'll be a better parent.

Introduction

You've probably heard the saying that our children are from us, but don't belong to us. Now you may be learning firsthand that our children aren't always like us, either. Even if your baby has your eyes or your husband's dimpled chin, certain aspects of her temperament may make you wonder if the hospital accidentally switched ID tags in the nursery.

Maybe you love to linger over a pink sunrise, but you've given birth to a night owl who's at her finest during Jay Leno's TV monologue. Or perhaps your idea of fun is curling up with a book, while your child loves jumping in his bouncy seat, shrieking the whole time.

How do you deal with these differences? "You don't change the baby's temperament -- you change the way you react to it, to create a good fit between the two of you," says Jan Kristal, a child-development specialist in San Rafael, California, who counsels parents on how to work with their child's unique character. Here's a look at some key personality traits to evaluate in your baby -- which first surface between 4 and 6 months -- plus tips on how to handle them.

Busy Bodies

A baby who's restless in the womb doesn't always turn out to be an energetic child. But Karen Smith, of El Dorado Hills, California, says pregnancy was a preview of things to come. Her son, Gavin, constantly moved inside her, and since birth he has loved physical activities.

If your infant is highly active, keep the following in mind when approaching issues like bedtime battles: Though the average child might settle down nicely when you let him have a half hour of "quiet time" before bed, "a very active child may need as much as an hour," Kristal says. During the day, give your child plenty of opportunities to play, providing him with age-appropriate toys like baby gyms and stacking blocks.

Routine Evaluation

How does your baby respond to new situations or people, or shakeups in her schedule? Does she go with the flow or become agitated? A baby low on the adaptability scale enjoys bedtime rituals and does best with set times for meals and naps. When disruption is unavoidable, advance preparation can lessen the trauma. So instead of abandoning plans for a vacation because you're worried your child won't sleep in an unfamiliar setting, "put her in a portable crib for a few days prior to leaving," says Barbara Medoff-Cooper, Ph.D., R.N., director of the Center for Nursing Research at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. When you're on the road, make the new environment similar to your home setting -- by singing the lullaby you always do, for instance.

Sensitivity Training

A baby with a sensitive temperament is acutely aware of noises, tastes, and other sensations that most infants barely notice. He can also be roused from sleep by the smallest noise or by light peeking through the window shades -- that is, if you can get him to sleep at all.

Try wearing your child in a front carrier so he can be soothed by the sounds and movement of your body. Also, consider buffering him against noise and other stimuli, and note whether games like peekaboo are overstimulating to him, especially in the evening, suggests Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, a parent educator and the author of Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles (Harper Perennial, 2000). Experiment to find out what soothes your child, she advises. It may be a particular blanket, stuffed animal, or song -- or a massage or bath.

A Question of Timing

Some babies do everything on a regular schedule: They take naps at mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and they nurse and have bowel movements at predictable intervals. Then there are the babies who never seem to fall into a rhythm. They may nap one day but not the next, and clamor for food at seemingly random times.

Unpredictable infants can be exhausting. To help your baby adjust to a pattern, advises Kurcinka, "create a schedule tailored to your own day: Dim the lights in the evening, and try putting her down for a nap after the late-morning feeding and after lunch. Even if she doesn't fall asleep, you'll see a shift in her routine."Once you identify your baby's unique temperament, you can develop parenting strategies that suit both of you. "It just makes life easier for parents if they understand their kids," Dr. Medoff-Cooper says.

Is It Just a Stage?

When your child acts in a striking way -- shy, rowdy, cautious -- it's natural to wonder whether the behavior is inborn or just a passing phase. How can you tell?

"Temperament-based behaviors are the ones you see right from the start that continue throughout your baby's life," says child-development expert Jan Kristal. "If a child emerges from birth kicking and shouting and remains very vocal and outgoing for her first few months, that's likely her temperament," she explains. On the other hand, if a 7-month-old who has generally been receptive to new faces suddenly starts to recoil from them, she may be going through a temporary bout of stranger anxiety.

And just because a behavior is temperament-based doesn't mean it's impossible to change, Kristal adds. "If your child flinches at loud noises, don't play the stereo loudly every day to try to get him used to it -- but don't protect him from all loud noises, either. You might play him a few minutes of upbeat music a day or let him help you turn up the volume." Gentle encouragement -- rather than a sink-or-swim, toughen-up attitude -- can work wonders.

9/02

Parents Magazine

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