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What a Personality!

As a baby, Kevin Grzybek was "a real challenge." "He didn't like to sleep, wasn't a great eater, and always wanted to be somewhere he wasn't  -- and he preferred to be carried there," says his mom, Joyce, of Ramsey, NJ. "He was just cranky all the time."

When Joyce Grzybek had her second child, Erica, she braced for more of the same. "I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop," Grzybek recalls. "I'd start making dinner when she took her morning nap because I'd think, This is the day she'll turn into a crazy baby." Now that Erica is 7 months old, Grzybek is finally starting to relax. "I had two polar-opposite babies, and I wonder how it happened. It made me think that, to a large extent, personality must be predetermined."

What it took one mom just two children to figure out, experts have been studying for decades. In the 1950s, the first researchers of infant temperament outlined a series of nine traits that are still believed to be the pillars of children's personalities. This constellation of behaviors that come bundled with your newborn can put him into one of three categories: easy, slow-to-warm-up, and challenging.

How can you tell which category your infant fits into? An easy baby is typically adaptable, has a regular schedule, and is pleasant and sociable, according to William Carey, M.D., director of behavioral pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Understanding Your Child's Temperament. Slow-to-warm-up babies are cautious and less physically active, tend to whimper rather than scream, and are occasionally in a negative mood. Challenging infants may break the tolerance barrier on many fronts: They have highly intense reactions, defy routine, are very cautious in new situations, and are predominantly in a negative mood.

Still, your little one's temperament is hardly set in stone. Although experts don't know for certain how much of a child's personality is inherited, they do know that the most important part of the whole equation is your perception about behavior and child rearing, a factor they call "goodness of fit." "A baby may or may not be in line with what his parents want or expect, but working that out is what parenting is all about," says Barry Lester, Ph.D., director of the Infant Development Center at Women and Infants Hospital at Brown Medical School, in Providence.

Who's That Baby?
Many parents  -- including Laura Stansfield of Tracy, CA  -- are caught off guard by the personality that emerges. "My daughter, Lindsay, is the perfect blend of my and my husband's most challenging traits  -- loud, aggressive, stubborn, ornery," says Stansfield of her 18-month-old. "She was a baby who spoke her mind and had an opinion." Still, Stansfield also describes her daughter as very likable and charismatic  -- just like her husband.

When do such characteristics truly emerge? Some parents see hints as early as in the womb ("She kicked me all night and day") or shortly after birth. But the picture usually becomes clearer when your infant is around 4 months old and has had a chance to adapt to the world. That's when she falls into a schedule (or not), begins to amuse herself with a toy (or not), or socializes with everyone she meets (or not).

The task is greater, certainly, if your firstborn is challenging. "A demanding temperament is going to affect every aspect of how you feel about yourself  -- from being satisfied with your marriage to feeling okay about returning to work," Dr. Carey says. Parents tend to think they can't leave these babies with anyone else and end up feeling trapped and frustrated, he adds. His advice: Give yourself a break  -- go out to dinner with your mate or get out of the house for an hour or so.

Loving the One You're With
While most parents expect to fall madly in love with their baby, it can be tough even to like one who's giving you a hard time just when you're at your weakest  -- exhausted, physically beat up, and walking a hormonal tightrope. But bonding is the very remedy that will get you through this push-pull relationship. "Try to just look at your role as making the world a more secure place for your infant. When you're sensitive to his cues and respond, that not only helps him form an attachment to you but also helps him deal with his emotions," says Robin Goodman, Ph.D., a psychologist with the New York University Child Study Center.

The same is true for slow-to-warm-up infants. When they're stressed, what they really need is physical contact to help them through it, say experts. That's what works for Andrea McKee of Washington, DC, with 3-month-old Neely, who even sleeps on her mother's chest. "I never anticipated that I'd be holding her nearly twenty-four hours a day," says McKee. "But after feeling frustrated, I figured out how to make the best of it. Yes, Neely's clingy, but she's not cranky; she's very bright-eyed and seems well-adjusted to me."

Finding that sort of positive twist is exactly the strategy parents need, says Goodman. "Look at the strengths your baby's temperament may bring," she says. A very persistent baby may grow up to meet challenges head-on. A shy baby may become a keen observer and negotiator. A timid baby may be cautious and therefore safer because he won't get himself into as much trouble.

The Right Fit
When infants and their parents have a personality clash, the end result can be frustration and guilt. "Often what makes a parent think her baby is difficult is some trait that she doesn't understand or can't handle. For instance, some parents with quiet infants don't like it because they'd prefer to know how that baby feels," says Dr. Carey.

Smoothing out these hurdles may mean making adjustments to your style of doing things as you begin to figure out what's making your little one unhappy. But nothing can compare to the rewards of decoding your infant's behavior.

Easy Babies: Parents of these oh-so-sought-after infants often wonder whether they're doing enough, but the reality is, these babies don't need much beyond feeding and changing  -- and loving. "Easy babies tend to attract their own attention," Dr. Carey says. "By cooing and smiling and engaging everyone within their sight, they get plenty of stimulation."

Of course, that doesn't mean that you should leave them unattended for a long time  -- even when they're content. Frequent interaction and conversation are critical for the development of any infant. So, for example, when you're cooking or folding laundry, let your little one know you're there: "That's a pretty rattle you have. Do you know what color it is? It's red and blue."

Because they're often curious and adventurous, these infants can present a challenge as they become mobile. A research team at Pennsylvania State University recently identified a set of "sensation-seeking behaviors." Easy babies were quickest to reach for and react to new toys and sounds and, once they were walking, didn't hesitate to jump off a stair or two, according to Cynthia Stifter, Ph.D., lead researcher and professor of human development and family studies at the university. As toddlers, they went on to require constant supervision. "They're usually very happy, sociable, and interested in life, but a mother who worries about all the exploring and risk taking and is easily frustrated could find such a child very demanding," Stifter says. The solution: heavy-duty childproofing, so these kids can act on their interests with minimal risk.

Slow-to-Warm-Up Babies: Because they have an especially low threshold for stimulation, the biggest issue with these little ones is not to overwhelm them. Watch for signs that your baby has had enough play, such as rearing back or turning her head away, and leave her alone for a few minutes to regroup.

Since they love to be held, slow-to-warm-up infants can also require a good bit of creativity on their parents' part just to manage day-to-day practicalities. McKee relies on her baby carrier to keep her hands free and her 3-month-old happy, and her husband also bought her a headset so she can use the phone sans hands.

Once these clingy babies get to be 4 months or so, you can very gradually start to train them to amuse themselves, without interfering with their security level, says Barry Lester. First, interact  -- but don't nuzzle: As you hold your baby, keep her away from your body so there's less physical contact. Next, get her used to sitting on your lap (without hugging her close), then move her into an infant seat as you sit beside her, talking and playing. As she becomes more accustomed to sitting alone, back off a little. Try to do things  -- pay bills, read a magazine  -- in the same room, but go over frequently to interact. Says Lester, "She'll eventually figure out that it's more fun to look around and play than to cry"  -- a big step toward learning to calm herself down.

Challenging Babies: Temperamentally the same as slow-to-warm-up types, these babies show greater intensity and fewer regular habits. Frustrated outbursts are typical, so Stifter recommends being on hand to give your baby just enough help that he can accomplish things himself. For instance, if he's upset that he can't get a toy on the other side of the play mat, subtly push it toward him rather than hand it over outright.

One of the most effective ways to nurture a challenging baby is to teach him good sleep habits, says Robin Goodman. So if you're still nursing or rocking your 9-month-old to sleep every time he wakes up, stop. "Learning to self-soothe is what helps them cope with their emotions during the day as well as at night." But parents have to be as persistent about setting bedtime routines as their children are at resisting them, which is a tough order. "Keep telling yourself that what you're doing is a benefit rather than a punishment," she emphasizes. In other words, you're not leaving your child to cry, you're teaching him how to help himself calm down and rest.

Christina Collins of Pawtucket, RI, can attest to this approach. When her daughter, Claire, was 3 months old, she took her to the Colic Clinic at Women and Infants Hospital, in Providence, and received the same advice. "I went in to soothe her as often as I felt like it rather than watching the clock. I got her to sleep on her own at night within a few days, then worked two naps a day into her schedule," she says. In a matter of weeks, Claire's crying had decreased from six hours a day to about an hour and a half. Now 11 months old, "Claire's demanding in a high-energy way but she's also silly and fun," says Collins. "I was really afraid the colic would turn her into a serious, crabby kid. But it didn't  -- she's a happy, alert, and intuitive child."

That, says Lester, is a perfect example of goodness of fit. "Parents can help even the neediest baby channel all that intensity into more positive behavior. And the earlier you help your child regulate his emotions, the less difficult he's likely to be as he gets older."

Stephanie Wood's last piece for Parenting was "Are You a Good Parent?" in the November 2000 issue.