The innate parts of your baby's personality help determine how he eats, sleeps, and responds to new things. Identify his dominant traits and you'll find the easiest way to keep him comfortable and content.
The Active Baby
Some babies are in perpetual motion. Take 8-month-old Ethan Johnson: "He doesn't settle down at night and wakes up with tons of energy," says his mom, Heather, of Camarillo, California. "With Ethan, it's just go, go, go!"
What he needs from you: Active babies like to explore -- and that's a trait you should try to develop. Choose toys that encourage active play, take him along when you run errands, and hit your local playground or baby gym class for lots of stimulation.
These kids are always on the prowl, so you need to be especially vigilant about childproofing. Even if you've covered electrical outlets and tied back window treatments, scour the house for less-obvious hazards: Secure that harmless-looking dresser to the wall because your little explorer will try to scale it!
It's also important to give an active child plenty of downtime at the end of the day. "These kids need a calming, predictable bedtime routine to help them settle down," explains Debbie Thompson, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Children's Medical Center, Dallas. "Play soothing music, read his favorite story, or give him a gentle massage to help him relax."
The Mellow Baby
At the other end of the spectrum are go-with-the-flow infants who are content to entertain themselves. "Elia, my 6-month-old, is almost always in a peaceful mood," says Arizona mom Kristine Dzelza-Hopsone. "She adapts to new things easily, so we can involve her in most everything we do."
What she needs from you: Even if you've got a child who's so chill she could tolerate the most chaotic schedule, it's still important to maintain a routine: All babies need structure to feel secure. No need to be rigid about scheduling, though. Breakfast doesn't always have to be at 7 a.m. on the dot, but it should be in the same time frame, and bedtime should be predictable too. You can be looser about naptime, bathtime, and outings.
You should also make sure your mellow baby gets plenty of time for physical activity. "It's easy to think, 'Okay, she's happy lying there quietly all day and doesn't need too much from me.' But the fact is, she still thrives on interaction, affection, and stimulation," says Thompson.
The Sensitive Baby
This type of child is vulnerable to stimulation in his environment: He gets upset when he hears loud noises and squirms because the tag on his shirt is brushing against his neck. When he's exposed to strong scents, unusual sounds, or lots of activity, he quickly feels overloaded.
What he needs from you: Learn to read his signals. At first it can be frustrating when your infant melts down over tiny things. But your baby is just super-aware, and he needs you to tune in. Soon you'll know what he can't handle: Avoid those situations if you can, and always respect his limits. If he gets overwhelmed in a noisy food court, for example, take him outside for a few minutes. If his socks are irritating, let him go barefoot.
But make sure you don't remove all the stimulation from your baby's life. Sensitive children need exposure to new sounds, textures, and tastes to encourage their development -- they just need less than other kids. Soothing tactics like rocking, cuddling, and swaddling can help too.
The Fussy Baby
Some babies never seem totally happy. They melt down if they miss naptime by a half hour, they refuse to eat new foods, and they cry at the sight of unfamiliar faces. For fussy kids, the unexpected is simply too much.
What she needs from you: It's important to stick to the schedule, because fussy babies have a tightly wound internal clock and thrive on structure. Skip that errand if it interferes with your normal naptime routine -- it's just not worth hours with a crying kid.
Don't avoid new experiences, which help boost your child's social and cognitive skills. "Take gradual steps to reduce her fear of the unfamiliar," says psychologist Jerome Kagan, PhD, professor emeritus at Harvard University. Let your baby greet a new person from the comfort of your arms, or have one family over instead of joining a playgroup. You also need to accept the fact that your baby's just going to fuss. She needs a little extra attention from you to help her feel safe and happy in her world.
Are Baby Personalities Predictive?
Will your sensitive infant become a thin-skinned kid? Is your rowdy baby destined for a life as a troublemaker? Experts say the answer is "maybe -- or maybe not." The latest research by Benjamin Lahey, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, found a link between fussiness during infancy and behavior problems later on. But Dr. Lahey also discovered that when parents had positive interactions with their babies -- for example, they did things like reading to them and taking them along on errands -- the likelihood of behavioral issues diminished. Earlier long-term studies by Dr. Jerome Kagan arrived at the same basic conclusion: He followed a group of babies into adulthood and found that certain early traits did have some impact on adult behavior. But Dr. Kagan also concluded that all of a child's experiences -- at home, in school, and with his peers -- played a role in shaping his personality. The bottom line? Give your baby the love and attention he needs and then sit back and watch him shine.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Parents magazine.