Days or even hours after their children are born, parents reach conclusions about their temperaments. They may describe their babies as fussy or easygoing, sensitive or curious. For years, pediatricians and psychologists paid little attention to parents’ very early descriptions of their babies, chalking them up to wishful thinking or naiveté. But now we know that these parents were right all along!

Temperament is a description of how a child reacts to the world around her. It’s a personal style. For example, while all babies become startled and cry, some do so in many situations, while others in only a few. Some babies seem to take changes in stride; others become upset at the slightest shift in their routine.

This means that some babies are more “difficult” or “labor-intensive” than others. But no matter what the temperament, you’ll find that life’s a lot easier at home if you work with your baby’s style rather than try to fight it.

Here are the standard variables or dimensions that psychologists use to study children’s temperaments:

  • Activity level. Is your baby generally squirmy and active, or relaxed and laid back? (There’s some evidence that very active newborns are the ones that mothers complained about as kicking a lot before they were born!)
  • Regularity. How predictable are your baby’s eating and sleeping cycles?
  • Approach/Withdrawal. How does your baby respond to new situations and people? Does she brighten when she sees something new or does she recoil?
  • Adaptability. How well does your baby handle changes in her schedule or minor disruptions in her activities? If she becomes upset, does she recover quickly?
  • Sensory threshold. How sensitive is your baby to bright lights, loud noises or scratchy clothes?
  • Mood. Does your baby appear to be basically happy or generally upset and angry?
  • Intensity. How loud is your baby when she’s either excited or unhappy? Does she seem extroverted or subdued?
  • Distractibility. If your baby is hungry, for example, can you stop her crying temporarily by talking to her quietly or giving her a pacifier?
  • Persistence. Does your baby play with a simple toy for a long time, or does she prefer to go quickly from toy to toy?

Thinking about your baby’s temperament in these terms may give you clues to solving some of the behavior problems that you find especially frustrating. If, for example, your baby has a low sensory threshold you may notice that she startles and cries when a radio or a light in her room is turned on. But the signs may be more suble than that. She might reject a bottle because it’s too warm or too cold. She might push away from you or scream when you pick her up because she’s so sensitive to touch. Temperament might explain why a child like this doesn’t like to be rocked to sleep — it’s just too stimulating — while another child with a different temperament might love it.