A child’s temperament is predetermined, at least partially, by their genes and brain chemistry. It will affect how they sleep, eat and interact.
When helping families improve their child’s sleep, personality is one of the key factors that I consider. All children are uniquely different, and it is important that we understand their temperament in order to find what approach suits them as individuals.
Appreciating the fact that your child is sensitive, for example, means you can better pre-empt situations that will overstimulate or overwhelm them, and adapt their sleep environment accordingly. The same goes for a more energetic or extroverted child, who may need longer to wind down before bedtime, for example.
As a general guide, Tracy Hogg, British nurse and bestselling author of “Secrets of the Baby Whisperer”, describes five broad personality types and their common responses to eating, sleeping and socialising.
These descriptions are broad generalisations, but they can be useful for parents in trying to figure out their child because they know roughly what to expect from their “sensitive” or “spirited” kid.
Some children may have characteristics of more than one personality type. As a result, a ‘one size fits all’ approach usually doesn’t work. Nevertheless, I believe that the more we try to understand their temperament and feelings, the better we will be as parents and consultants.
According to Hogg, an “angel” child is one that easily adapts to their environment and to any changes. As a baby, they hardly ever cry and, if they do, it is not hard to read their cues. As a toddler, they rarely have tantrums because in general, their temperament is easy-going and even-tempered. From the time they are babies, they are generally good sleepers and go to bed easily at bedtime.
Eating: They are generally good eaters and are happy to try new things.
Activity: They are relatively active, like playing independently, but are also very social and good at sharing. They are usually pretty even-tempered, and therefore good at handling new situations.
Sleep: They generally settle to sleep well and independently.
Mood: They are easy-going and easy to read.
Hogg describes “textbook” babies as extremely predictable. They go through every developmental stage exactly as you would expect. Generally, they have a mellow temperament but will also be fussy or angry at times, as you would expect from a baby. However, they are relatively easy to calm down.
Eating: They are generally good eaters, but solid foods may have to be introduced gradually.
Activity: Some “textbook” babies are real go-getters, while others are a bit more mellow and prefer to watch. Generally, they are moderately active.
Sleep: They usually drift off to sleep fairly easily.
Mood: They are pretty easy-going, as long as someone reads their cues for hunger, tiredness and overstimulation.
TOUCHY or SENSITIVE
Touchy babies are very sensitive from the start. They tend to be highly reactive and easily affected by small changes in environment, such as noises and bright lights. This means they cry a lot, especially during the first few months.
Eating: They are impatient and quickly get frustrated, which can make breastfeeding and solids difficult.
Activity: They are cautious and it takes them a while to get used to new situations. This means they often need to be encouraged to participate.
Sleep: They get overstimulated and overtired very easily so it is very important to watch their sleep windows. Swaddling and darkness is particularly important for these babies.
Mood: They are easily irritated by external stimulus.
Spirited children are described by Hogg as “wild” or “high energy”. According to her, they are vocal and love being the centre of attention. Generally, they are not good sleepers and often need to be coaxed to go to bed.
Eating: They are pretty good eaters, but can be quite impatient, especially if breastfed.
Activity: They are very energetic and confident. Because they are highly reactive, they can sometimes be aggressive with others.
Sleep: They tend to fight sleep, because they don’t want to miss out.
Mood: They are opinionated and very vocal about what they want, which they will often want immediately. Their moods can change quickly and if they start having tantrums, they find it very hard to calm down.
Grumpy children can be tricky from the beginning. Feeding can be a challenge, as they can be impatient and sensitive. They are often slow at adapting to solid foods and particular about specific foods and its presentation. They can be social when they want to be, but tend to do things on their own terms and at their own pace.
Eating: They are generally impatient and feeding can be a struggle. Once they start eating solids they will often only eat very specific types of food.
Activity: They are usually relatively quiet and often prefer to play alone or watch.
Sleep: Sleep can be difficult because they are prone to becoming overtired and settling will often involve a lot of fussing and crying.
Mood: They are generally quite fussy, and any change to their routine can upset them.
(Tracy Hogg with Melinda Blau, The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems, London 2005, pp. 53-61)