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Your Baby's Personality

From his earliest days, my son Blaise was a peaceful baby, pondering the things around him with the intensity of a physicist figuring out new equations. At 4 months, he could occupy himself with a single toy for several minutes, examining every detail. And he never grew tired of cuddling on my lap.

When his sister, Taylor, was born, I expected things to be pretty much the same. But Taylor was constantly in motion. She seemed to require less sleep than anyone else in the family. At only a few months of age, she rejected quiet lap cuddles and turned every diaper change into an aerobic workout. Her favorite view of the world was from her baby swing, preferably in the middle of a party with the setting on "high."

How could two siblings be so different from such an early age?

A child's personality is shaped in part by environmental factors, such as her relationships and experiences. But many behaviors  -- such as an infant's tendency to wake up with a smile or a preschooler's penchant for throwing tantrums when things don't go exactly her way  -- can be connected directly to inborn temperament.

Researchers look at nine basic traits to identify an infant's temperament. Activity level, sensitivity, regularity in sleep and feeding patterns, adaptability to change, approach to new people or things, mood, distractibility, intensity of reaction when pleased or displeased, and length of attention span are all rated on a high-to-low scale. A child's level of each trait, says Tedra Walden, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, affects how she responds to different experiences. "These inborn traits," says Steven Reznick, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "are the basic building blocks from which children's personalities grow."

Some temperament traits make parenting a snap, while others (say, the need to be held constantly or a tendency to fall apart in the face of the slightest upset) aren't so easy. Experts use three general categories  -- "difficult," "easy," and "slow to warm"  -- to identify babies who have clusters of similar scores on the trait scales.

While these terms are helpful in sorting out the wide range of infant temperaments, you shouldn't rely solely on them to understand your baby. No single trait can define an infant's temperament even if it's more dominant than the others, says Jay Belsky, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families, and Social Issues at the University of London. Belsky adds, "Every child with so-called negative personality traits has positive ones as well, and even 'easy' babies have some challenging traits." An infant with a generally easy temperament may be extremely sensitive to sights, sounds, and textures, for instance, and may need adjustments made to his environment  -- dimmed lights, less noise, softer clothes  -- in order to bring out his naturally mellow self. Whether or not a trait is "positive" also depends on the circumstances. A high level of adaptability, for instance, could turn out to be a disadvantage for a child if he always blends into the background and never asserts himself.

If you feel your baby has a few difficult traits, look for the silver lining. Walden suggests replacing negative terms, such as "stubborn," with more positive ones, such as "determined." Jodie Johnson of Franklin, WI, acknowledged the fact that her 3-year-old daughter's fierce streak of independence could sometimes make her behavior difficult to manage, but she also realized that her daughter was flourishing on new experiences and had a long attention span for tasks that interested her. As for her son, who experienced separation anxiety at 1 year of age, Johnson reminded herself that even though his clinginess could wear her out, he was more apt to cuddle than his sister. "You have to look at the whole range of traits in each of your children," says Johnson.

It can also help to take a step back and look at certain traits from a long-term perspective. That's a lesson I've learned over the years. Blaise's lengthy attention span was sometimes tough to deal with when he was a toddler, because he threw tantrums when I interrupted one of his activities. But that same trait turned out to be an asset later, when he zeroed in on schoolwork with the same focus. Similarly, I was overwhelmed by Taylor's energy level and short attention span when she was a toddler. But at 9 years old, my dynamic daughter thrived on a schedule packed with art classes, flute lessons, and social activities.

It's important not to feel guilty or think you're doing something wrong when dealing with your baby's more difficult traits. Her fussiness may just be her way of releasing tension. And remember that your baby's personality is still developing. In one study, Belsky looked at infants at 3 and then again at 9 months and found that some became more difficult and some less, even within that brief time frame.

A major factor influencing the transformation of your baby's personality is your own parenting style. "In our study, the babies who became easier to manage were those whose caregivers were attentive, responsive, and involved," says Belsky. "When their babies cried, they viewed them as being 'unhappy,' 'uncomfortable,' or 'easily stressed.'" Babies tended to remain difficult for caregivers who interpreted their babies' behavior as "bad" or "purposefully disruptive." As a result, parents were less able to keep their irritation in check, which made their infants even more inconsolable.

Maria Frederick of Newbury, MA, saw firsthand how strong a parent's influence can be. "Our daughter, Alyssa, was a very demanding, high-maintenance newborn. But only a year later she became an easy baby," she says. "I think my husband helped make her that way. He's a wicked goof, and he was always singing, dancing, and playing with her to keep her entertained, no matter how sour her mood."

In fact, says Reznick, it's important to remember that parenting isn't a one-way street. The notion of temperament only makes sense in the context of a parent's own personality, because what one parent views as a positive temperament trait might be seen by another as difficult. In reality, parent and child each constantly affect the way the other behaves, and both may eventually alter the other's personality.

An athletic mom who loves the outdoors, for instance, might be thrilled with her infant's high level of activity, taking this as a sign that he'll join her someday on hikes and bike rides; she'd probably send a message to her child that a high energy level is good. A more sedentary parent, on the other hand, might be less enthusiastic and discourage physical activity. And a nervous, fussy baby who cries at a stranger's smile might be more likely to develop the confidence he needs to be more outgoing if he receives gentle encouragement from his parents. If he's met with disapproval or admonition instead, that could make him fussier, which would elicit more disapproval from his parents, producing a cycle of negative interaction.

The best way to determine your baby's temperament is to keep close track of her reactions to daily activities. Does she become startled and cry when the oven timer goes off or does she turn her head in that direction to investigate the sound? Does she relax into her car seat as you buckle her in or thrash about, red-faced, in search of freedom?

Tracking your baby's behavior and identifying her traits can help you work with and appreciate her individual style. And, as Belsky notes, it's best to "respond to her needs instead of trying to control them." If a baby dislikes being held, for instance, Mom or Dad can lie beside her on the bed and stroke her arms or bicycle her legs so that she can get used to being touched without feeling crowded.

Walden also stresses the importance of finding a middle ground with your baby. "My son used to disintegrate if I ran more than two errands with him," admits Walden. She remedied this by cutting down on the amount of time they were out. Then, she gradually lengthened their outings to expose him to more new places and things. "Arrange the environment so that you don't place unnecessary demands on your baby, but at the same time, don't always meet all of his demands," says Walden. "That way, you have a child who stretches and grows."

Parents who are more tuned in to their baby's unique temperament will also be better prepared to guide her through future changes and milestones, such as adjusting to daycare or starting school, and may also have an easier time preventing behavioral and health problems.

It's a challenge to reexamine and change your style of doing things to accommodate an infant whose personality is unlike yours  -- but it can also be rewarding. After just a few months, Blaise and I developed a sweet bedtime ritual. Every night, he sat on my lap and pointed to pictures in his books as I read him stories.

With Taylor, this routine fell apart: The slightest distraction caused her to twist in my lap to see what was going on, and by 7 months all she wanted to do was crawl and pull herself up to a standing position. Our reading rapidly turned into frustrating wriggling sessions as I tried to get her to sit still. And it wasn't until she was 9 months old that I discovered a way to get her more interested in books. If I let her play with a stack of colored blocks or large crayons and scrap paper while I read, she'd happily sit still. The key to Taylor's heart, I realized, was activity and hands-on participation. Ultimately, her quieter, more sedate brother got into the act, and as they got older, the two of them began building elaborate story settings or drawing pictures of the characters we read about.

I found myself having to evolve yet again when my third child entered the world. Aidan's energy level and sociability at 10 months made even Taylor at that age seem like a shrinking violet. Despite his love of motion, however, Aidan would spend 20 minutes at a time intensely focused on taking things out of containers and replacing them. He also weathered a family vacation to rural England without missing a beat. All of these traits taken together made Aidan both the most challenging and the easiest baby I've had yet. This just goes to show that, as Reznick says, "temperament is like a tapestry, in that there are many threads of personality. To describe an infant's temperament, you can pull out one particular strand  -- like activity or intensity  -- and focus on that. Or you can pull out whole combinations of strands that fit into a broader pattern."

And that's exactly what we all hope to do as parents: See the tapestry whole and appreciate our children as unique individuals with complex personalities, each strand of which enriches both our relationship with them and their own role in the world.

Holly Robinson, the mom of three children and two stepchildren, writes frequently about parenting.