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Sensitive Sweetie

Q. I have a 6-month-old daughter who is very shy, timid, and easily frightened. Even a new toy that squeaks or makes any noise can cause tears. If I cough or sneeze or make a loud noise at home, she shivers. She's always been this way and is otherwise a very healthy baby. What can I do to make her more comfortable?

A. Your daughter is lucky to have a parent who is paying such close attention to her behavior and, on top of that, is willing to adjust the environment to meet her needs.

Like the rest of us, different babies have different sensory thresholds  -- that is, varying levels of stimulation that are optimal for them. Some of us like to have the radio on at all times, others can't wait for the peaceful silence at the end of the day. Your daughter is telling you that her preference is for a quiet lifestyle right now.

In some babies, a dislike of noise and novelty comes with an overall difficulty being soothed, poor regulation of sleep-wake cycles, and hypersensitivity to all sorts of sensory stimulation, including bright light, seams on clothing, and Daddy's scratchy face. Babies with this constellation of behaviors are sometimes given a diagnosis of sensory-regulatory disorder (also called sensory-integration disorder and other names), a relatively mild neurological condition that responds well to occupational therapy. But because it is a rather recently recognized disorder and because its symptoms are so varied (babies who are undersensitive to stimuli can be diagnosed with it as well), there is some inconsistency in who receives the diagnosis and who does not.

For this reason, what you call your baby's personality is less important than how you respond to it. Try to figure out what types of interaction best suit your daughter. Some babies are quite sensitive to sound but don't mind bright colors or lots of movement; others are sensitive to all kinds of stimulation.

If your baby finds noisy toys frightening but likes to look at things, put away the noisemakers and focus on quieter toys like books, mirrors, and stuffed animals that offer a variety of textures and patterns. You can gradually introduce gentle musical toys if she seems to find them soothing, but if she doesn't, skip them.

She may also prefer to be offered a small selection of toys, and may not want you to change the selection very often. Alternatively, she may be happier simply being cuddled while you read or chat quietly on the phone, or even sitting in her baby seat while you cook or clean nearby. Figure out what works best for her  -- some sensitive babies actually prefer not to be held, opting instead for the space of a play yard or baby seat.

You can't stop your sneezes or a loud car outside, but you can respond by quietly hugging her (if that is what soothes her) and letting her know that everything is okay. Try to stay lighthearted about it  -- you can say softly and jokingly, "That was a loud one, wasn't it? Mommy sneezes like a bear!" Even though she might not understand the words right now, she'll understand your tone. You can have one stock phrase for a fire engine, another for leaf blowers, another for the doorbell. The idea is that you normalize these events and provide her with a little routine to help her cope with them when they occur.

Since you know that your baby is shy and does not like loud noises, this is not the time to enroll her in a busy playgroup. It's okay if she stays at home alone with you for a while until she gets older and develops some strategies to deal with lots of stimulation. You obviously can't stay home all the time (and shouldn't), but try to make sure that outings are short and that she is always with someone she trusts. When you have visitors, let them know that your daughter is on the shy side right now, and don't hand her off to them until she feels comfortable.

Always emphasize that she is shy "right now" because you don't want to lock her into any set of expectations. For this reason, it's not a bad idea to always keep track of how she is responding to things, and to bring out a gentle music box or other such toy now and then. You never know when she might decide she is ready for more stimulation  -- and you want to be prepared when she gets there.

  Anita Sethi, Ph.D., is a research scientist at The Child and Family Policy Center at New York University. She has two sons.

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