Understanding Baby Temperament: How to Tune Into Your Child’s Natural Personality - Happy as a Mother

Understanding Baby Temperament: How to Tune Into Your Child’s Natural Personality


with Dr. Cara Goodwin, Clinical Psychologist



WHAT YOU’LL LEARN


  • The Definition of Baby Temperament
  • Early Indicators of Baby Temperament
  • How Temperament Impacts Sleep
  • The Baby Temperament Traits (and Tips for Navigating Them)
  • Why Understanding Temperament Matters

Do you find yourself wondering if you’re doing something to make your baby “difficult”? It might just be baby temperament! Our children are born with certain inborn personality traits. When we understand them, we can better attune to their needs (and stop blaming ourselves)! 

Today, I’m joined by clinical psychologist Cara Goodwin, founder of Parenting Translator, to discuss baby temperament and how to support your child’s individual needs. 

Did I Do Something to Cause This?

One of my good friends had a baby around the same time that I had my first son. My baby was spirited from the very beginning. Once he learned how to crawl, he was in everything. I was chasing him around non-stop. 

I remember that one day when we visited my friend, she put her baby down in a Bumbo chair…and he just sat there calmly watching her. 

I could barely believe it. My baby had never done that. 

A fleeting voice entered my head…

Did I do something wrong? 

Is she just lucky?

Is she a better mom than me? 

When our babies have more spirited personalities, it can be hard to feel like it isn’t our fault. But in reality, baby temperament—something we have no control over—plays a much bigger role than we realize. 

Over time, I learned how to adjust to my son for the baby he was (not the baby I thought I would have). And when I had two more with completely distinct little personalities, I learned how to adapt my parenting to suit their needs. But that little questioning voice still popped up from time to time. 

That’s why I was excited to chat with Dr. Cara. She has made it her mission to share evidence and research with parents in a tangible way, which is something I really appreciate. I couldn’t wait to hear what the research has to say about baby temperament. 

The Definition of Baby Temperament

I wasn’t alone in wondering if I had done something to make my baby more “difficult.” My mom clients often ask me about their baby’s behavior, wondering if it’s normal or typical. 

Baby temperament can be a hard concept to grasp. Our babies are often assigned with words like “easy” or “fussy.” But when we understand temperament, we realize that it is much more nuanced. 

Dr. Cara said that temperament is a child’s way of responding to the world—their inborn personality. We all develop other personality traits over the years, but our temperament is foundational. 

Dr. Cara pointed out that as a society, we tend to blame parents when a baby has a more challenging temperament. Family members might say that you need to discipline or avoid spoiling your child. On the other hand, when a baby has an “easier” temperament, we say, “Oh, you got so lucky.” 

This double standard puts more pressure on moms and makes us feel like we are failing at something we have no control over. 

We don’t cause or impact temperament. But we can learn to adapt our parenting to suit our baby’s individual needs. 

Early Indicators of Baby Temperament

So how do we know what our baby’s temperament is? Dr. Cara said there are many early clues. We can observe a baby’s temperament from the very beginning by watching their natural patterns. 

For example, some babies are naturally more active. They might engage more with tummy time or like to wiggle around. Other babies might naturally be more withdrawn from activity, preferring calmer moments. 

Another early indicator is a baby’s regularity or preference for routine. Dr. Cara shared that with her first baby, she read that she needed to start her on a routine as early as possible. When her baby didn’t adapt to the routine, she wondered what she was doing wrong. Now, she understands that her baby simply wasn’t naturally inclined toward regularity. 

Babies can also show an early tendency toward sensitivity. Some babies are fine around sudden noises or bright lights, while others startle easily or shy away. 

Mood is also an early indicator of temperament. Some babies are more laid back, while others might be fussier. It doesn’t mean that we are bad moms or that our baby is “difficult,” it just means they have certain needs that other babies might not have. 

How Temperament Impacts Sleep

When our babies are very little, so much of their world centers around feeding and sleeping. These often become measuring sticks for moms who try to determine if they’re doing everything “right.” 

I remember struggling through the first year—none of my babies slept through the night. Many moms feel frustrated when their babies don’t align with that invisible measuring stick. But Dr. Cara said there is a relationship between baby temperament and sleep

For example, if a baby is more naturally active, they might not sleep as long. If they are susceptible to sensitivity, they might wake more often due to noise or light. And if they are more likely to have a negative mood, they might cry when they wake instead of going back to sleep. 

However, she also pointed out that research around this topic has been misinterpreted. A study was done on temperament and sleep that showed that parents who used active sleep strategies (like rocking, walking, or bouncing) were more likely to have a baby with a difficult temperament than those who used passive sleep strategies (like reading a book or sticking to a bedtime routine). 

When this study came out, the media put out headlines that made it sound like the sleep strategies cause the difficult temperament. 

This is where the problem with research comes in—when the media skews it, parents might be left confused or misguided. Correlation doesn’t always mean causation. 

In this case, it wasn’t the sleep strategies that caused the temperament—it’s likely the other way around. As anybody with a challenging baby knows, you often have to rely on more active strategies to get them to sleep. 

Dr. Cara said that when headlines put the blame on moms, we should always question the source. Moms don’t need any more shame or blame. 

The Baby Temperament Traits  (and Tips for Navigating Them)

When we understand our child’s temperament, we can adapt our parenting to meet them where they are. There are 9 primary baby temperament traits, and each comes with individual needs:

Activity Level

Some babies are naturally more active, while others are less active. 

We can often see indicators of this from an early age and can adapt our parenting. If our baby is more active, we can allow more opportunities for movement. On the other hand, if our baby is less active we might need to be aware of their energy level and avoid scheduling too many activities. 

Regularity

Some babies adapt easily to a routine—others don’t naturally adhere to a schedule. 

If our baby responds well to a routine right off the bat, we can start them on a schedule earlier. But if they are more resistant, we might need to be more free-flowing rather than pushing a schedule. 

Initial Reaction

Some children are ready to jump into new activities, while others are slower to warm up in new situations. 

If your child is more hesitant or prone to separation anxiety, you might need to offer more support in new situations. For example, you might stay at the first gymnastics class rather than dropping them off, giving them time to adapt. 

Sensitivity

Sensitivity is about how babies react to sensory inputs—like sounds, touches, and light. 

It’s important to be empathetic to our children if they are more sensitive. For example, if they struggle with certain textures of socks or clothing, we need to be understanding. 

They aren’t behaving badly or being dramatic—they simply are experiencing the sensory inputs more strongly. We can offer support and help them develop strategies to work through their sensory struggles. 

Intensity 

Some babies respond intensely to positive or negative emotions, experiencing high highs and low lows. 

When your child is a big feeler, it might come across as dramatic or difficult. But it’s important to remember that there are real feelings there. We can help them develop language for their emotions and sit comfortably with a wide range of feelings

Adaptability

This temperament relates to how easily children adapt to change, such as moving from one activity to the next or starting a new school. 

Some children might need more warnings before transitions or extra support in new situations. If your child is less adaptable, think about how you can prepare them for new things. 

Distractibility 

Some babies get distracted easily, while others remain more focused on what they are doing. 

If your child is easily distractible, you might need to eliminate background TV or extra noise that keeps them from focusing on their play. On the other hand, if they are not, you might need to help them avoid overfocusing, which can make it more difficult to move on from a negative feeling. 

Persistence

Some children will stick with an activity persistently, while others are more likely to give up or move along to something else. 

If they are more persistent, it might come across as stubbornness. This trait can be challenging, but persistence is valuable as well. If your child is highly-persistent, Dr. Cara recommends sticking firmly to boundaries. 

Mood

Children might also be more naturally prone to a positive or negative mood. 

It’s important for kids to know that their feelings and mood are not wrong. We can help give them coping skills to navigate their emotions. 

Why Understanding Temperament Matters 

Dr. Cara pointed out that the purpose of understanding temperament isn’t to pigeonhole or label our children. Instead, understanding temperament helps us take blame off of ourselves and focus on supporting our child in the way they need. 

We can also see the strengths within those temperaments better. For example, instead of viewing our child as dramatic, we can understand their intense reactions and know that those big feelings will help them relate to others in the future. 

The more we understand temperament, the more we can focus on helping our child thrive instead of trying to change them. 

It can be frustrating to navigate more challenging temperaments, and that’s okay. We can acknowledge that it is hard and still respond in a supportive way. 

It’s also important to understand our own temperament and how that affects the way we react. If our temperament is very different, or even very similar to our child’s, it can make it even more difficult. 

Dr. Cara recommends going through the list and determining not just where your children fall, but also where you do. Then, think about your parenting and the environment you are creating. Are they aligning with your child’s needs? Are they offering support where your child struggles? 

Understanding temperament is empowering. It allows us to see our child at their level and show up the way they need us to. 

If you’re struggling with the adjustment to parenthood, our Wellness Center can help. Book a free 15 minute consult with a mom therapist today!

Dr. Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, best-selling children’s book author, and a mother to three children. She specializes in translating recent scientific research into information that is helpful, relevant, and accurate for parents and caregivers.  Dr. Goodwin has spent years researching child psychology and neuroscience and providing therapy and clinical services for children of all ages and their parents.  She also wrote a children’s book titled “What to Do When You Feel Like Hitting” which gives children evidence-based strategies to use when they are dysregulated. She is the founder of the nonprofit organization Parenting Translator, which translates recent scientific research into information that parents and caregivers can use in their everyday lives.


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