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What Kind of Temperament Does My Baby Have?

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Parent Handouts and Info - Parent


Defines the notion of temperament and lists and describes the nine dimensions of temperament: activity level, rhythmicity, approach or withdrawal, adaptability, threshold of responsiveness, intensity of reaction, quality of mood, distractibility, and attention span and persistence, as well as the broader classifications of 'easy,' 'difficult,' and 'slow to warm up.'


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Infancy (<1)

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What Kind of Temperament Does My Baby Have? (Adapted from Healthy Steps)

What Kind of Temperament Does My Baby Have? (Adapted from Healthy Steps)

Parents often talk about how different their children are from each other and wonder why this is so. Teachers, child care providers, doctors, and nurse practitioners use the concept of "temperament" to help them describe these differences in behavior and responses to new events. Temperament can help us to predict how each individual child will behave in a given situation. Temperament is the "how" of behavior; it is a fairly consistent trait that describes how a child is likely to respond to people, events, and emotions. Temperament does have some biological basis, but it can also be influenced by the environment. For example, a "shy" child who is raised in a supportive environment can build enough confidence to overcome the "shyness."

Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, two specialists in the field of child development, found nine characteristics of temperament in their research. These are listed below. You may begin to discover a picture of your child by noticing whether your child has more or less of a particular quality. This is neither good nor bad, but may help you to predict activities that will be easy for your child to handle and situations where your child may need more support.

Nine characteristics of temperament:

  • Activity level. This refers to the amount of motor activity that is usual for your child. Does it feel like you need four hands to diaper your constantly moving baby? Does your child move a lot or a little during sleep? Answering these questions will help you determine if your child has a high activity level or a low activity level.
  • Rhythmicity. This refers to the regularity of your child's patterns of sleeping, eating, and toileting. Do these activities occur at about the same or at different times each day? Thinking about these questions will help you understand if there are predictable patterns or if these activities are unpredictable.
  • Approach or withdrawal. This refers to the way that your child usually responds to new things, people, and events. Does your child enter new situations, such as visiting infrequently-seen friends and relatives, by exploring, going to new people, approaching children, or choosing toys and beginning to play? Or in new situations does your child stay close to you, refuse to be picked up or held by others, accept toys from you but not others, and remain cautious throughout the visit? This will tell you if your child generally has a positive or negative approach to new situations.
  • Adaptability. This refers to your child's ability to alter his response to meet the demands presented by new events, new things, and new people. Did your child scream or cry the first time he was bathed but enjoy it on the second or third try? If so, then your child may be highly adaptive. Did your child spit out a new food and later continue to push it away? If so, then your child may have low adaptability.
  • Threshold of responsiveness. This refers to the level of sounds, sights, and touches it takes to get your child's attention and response. Do you tiptoe around your home after you put your child to bed for fear of awakening her with even the slightest sound? This is a low threshold of response. Does your child enjoy roughhousing? This is a high threshold of response.
  • Intensity of reaction. This refers to the way your child responds to sound, sight, taste, and touch. Does your child cry hard when she is uncomfortable or distressed and laugh hard when pleased or excited? If so, this is a high level of reaction. Does your child whine or cry softly when angry or uncomfortable and smile briefly without laughing when pleased or excited? If so, this is a low level of reaction.
  • Quality of mood. This refers to the mood that your child is in most of the time. Some children are quick to smile, have an easy time being approached and approaching others, are generally pleased and responsive to praise. Some children have a more serious nature, showing intense feelings like pleasure and anger in more subtle ways like giving "a quick smile" to express joy or happiness.
  • Distractibility. This refers to the level of noise or new events it takes to cause your child to stop focusing on one activity. For example, is it easy to distract your child from a forbidden activity by offering something new? Will your child stop fussing during a diaper change when given a toy or pacifier? If so, your child may be highly distractible. When you take a toy away, does your child cry and refuse all substitutes? Does your child fuss continuously during diaper changes even when you try distractions like singing and offering toys? If so, your child is not easily distracted and has low distractibility.
  • Attention span and persistence. This refers to the length of time a child will stay with an activity even when there are obstacles. Can your child play alone for a half hour or more? Can he watch a mobile or listen to you sing for a long time? This is a child with a long attention span. Does your child play with a toy for a few minutes and then move on to something else? Does your child give up easily when experiencing even small frustrations such as a block tower that falls over after the first try? This is a child with a short attention span.

As you answer these questions, remember to think about your child's typical or usual behavior. You can also begin to develop an understanding of your child by looking at these categories in combination. For example, your child may enjoy periods of extended play with one or two toys no matter what is going on around the house, showing low distractibility and a long attention span. Yet, if you need to remove one of these toys, this same child may refuse any substitutes and will tantrum for quite a while.

Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas, as well as Dr. T Berry Brazelton, found that looking at these qualities in combination is helpful. They found three combinations or temperamental styles that are most common and called them "easy," "difficult," and "slow to warm up."

Adapted from Healthy Steps. Edited and Compiled by the Center for Promotion of Child Development Through Primary Care 2011

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