Think of your baby like a boat and her temperament as the sea she sails on. Infants with a stable boat (good self-calming ability) on a smooth sea (a calm temperament) sail easily through the first year. But unstable boats (poor self-calming ability) or rocky seas (challenging temperament) make babies prone to being pushed into crying by the day’s tumult of sensations.
Luckily...most babies are mild tempered!
Easy Temperament: A Walk in the Park
Mellow from the first days of life, these babies register their complaints with mild fussing, as if to say, “Please Mummy, it’s a little bit too bright in here!”
These little “surfer dudes” have no trouble taking the craziness of the world in stride.
However, babies who are sensitive or intense–or, heaven help you, both–often launch into screaming outburst, like boats tossed in a storm.
Challenging Temperament: Little Babies with Big Personalities
Lizzy and her twin Jennifer were like peas in a pod, both super sensitive to noise and sudden jolts. When unhappy, they cried with deafening force. Their one difference: Jenny could eventually quiet her own upsets, but once Lizzy’s screams got rolling, she had no ability to rein herself in.
Infants like Lizzy are tough because their personalities are too big for them to handle. They’re often given funny nicknames by parents who are trying to laugh – rather than cry-during the difficult early days and nights. Amanda’s parents christened her “Demanda,” Charlotte’s mom called her “Gassy Gussy,” and Lachlan’s parents dubbed him “General Fuss-ter.”
Two types of temperament are particularly challenging: babies who are sensitive to everything… and those who are super-passionate and intense.
Sensitive Temperament: Perceptive Infants as fragile as Crystal
Do you have extra-sensitive friends or relatives who get annoyed by sounds, messy rooms or strong smells? Similarly, sensitive newborns tend to jump when the phone rings or yelp at the taste of lanolin on the nipple. Alert and pure as crystal, these infants are open to everything around them… and have great difficulty self-soothing once crying starts.
If your newborn is extra-sensitive, you may notice that she occasionally looks away from you during feeding or playtime. This “gaze aversion” is not a sign that she doesn’t like you or doesn’t want to look at you. It usually just means you’ve gotten a little too close. (Imagine a ten-foot face suddenly coming right in front of your nose. You, too, might need to look away!) Move back a foot or two to allow a bit more space between her eyes and your face.
Intense Temperament: Personalities Between Passion… and Explosion
All babies experience flashes of frustration. Calm kids take these in stride, but intense babies tend to explode. It’s as if the “sparks” of every distress fall into the “dynamite” of their volatile temperaments … and Kapow! And, once these babies are wailing, stopping the upset may be hard, even when they get what they seem to want.
Jackie witnessed this intense crying when her passionate two-month old got hungry.
Jeffrey would announce his hunger by letting out a “Feed me or I’m gonna die!” shriek and I would leap off the sofa, pulling my breast out as I ran to him. But he’d often ignore my dripping boob at his mouth and continue to cry, shaking his head from side to side as if he were blind!
I was worried that he might think of my breast as a hand trying to silence him rather than my loving attempt to rescue him. Despite his protests, I persisted until he could latch on. And then, lo and behold, he’d eat as if I hadn’t fed him in months.
Jackie smartly realized that Jeffrey wasn’t intentionally ignoring her; he was just an itty bitty baby…dealing with a great big personality.
Does a Baby’s Temperament Last a Lifetime?
As babies grow up, they don’t get less intense or sensitive, but they do develop skills to help balance their temperamental swings. By 3 months, your baby’s smiling, cooing, rolling, grabbing and chewing will help her handle excitement and annoyance. And another month or two after that shell add the superb self-soothing skills of laughter, mouthing objects and moving about.
With time, the excitement that used to ignite her shrieks will start a bubbly flow of giggles. So if you have a challenging baby, don’t lose heart. Passionate infants often become the biggest laughers and most talkative members of the family. (Hey Mom, look! Look! It’s incredible!”) And sensitive infants often grow into the most compassionate and perceptive children. (No, Mom, it's not purple. It’s lavender.”)