Is my baby too young to have personality traits? 

Baby has been giggling all morning – do you have a future class clown on your hands? Will determination to crawl early grow into a passion for sports? Parents get to know their new babies better every day, but babies don’t do a lot of the things adults use to figure out each other’s personalities. It can be tempting to translate the ways babies do act into ideas about adult personalities, but a lot of those things babies do – like sleeping in bursts, or wailing when they’re tired or hungry – have more to do with being babies than they do with individual traits. Every baby is different, though, and eventually those differences crystalize into the distinct personalities their parents will know and love.

Babies and personality

One of the earliest extensive studies of personalities over time, Doctors Chess and Thomas’s New York Longitudinal Study, started by tracking the “temperament” of infants. Chess and Thomas started out by tracking temperament, rather than personality, because temperament, as they defined it, was the traits children were born with, rather than the parts of a personality that they grew into later. Since that time, most behavioral therapists studying personality in babies and children do start with studies of temperament, and though they often use different terms to track temperament, they often track the same general trends. 

The traits Chess and Thomas began tracking in infants, and then used as a way of evaluating the way the adults those infants grew up into acted, and any continuity in their behavior, were:

  • Activity level: Activity level is measured against age-appropriate developmental milestones, and also against other children’s activity level, since low-energy for a toddler may also still seem pretty high-energy compared to adults, or even older children.
  • Regularity: Regularity refers mostly to the regularity of sleeping and eating patterns. Young infants tend to start out with pretty unpredictable schedules, so part of regularity is how easily a child falls into a routine and how closely they sticks to it once it’s established.
  • Sociability: Sometimes referred to as initial reaction, this trait involves how babies respond to first meeting new people, whether they’re drawn to them or they withdraw from them.
  • Adaptability: Even the most tightly-scheduled baby occasionally runs into a bump in the road. Babies who are able to adapt more easily to a change in schedule or environment differ in temperament from babies who have a harder time with change.
  • Intensity: Intensity has to do with a baby’s reactions – whether they have a positive or a negative reaction, intensity has to do with how strong that reaction is.
  • Disposition: Also referred to as mood, a child’s disposition is just a question of whether they are generally a happy or content baby, an irritable baby, or a friendly baby.
  • Distractibility: This refers to a baby’s tendency to get side-tracked. This can show up in the way they respond to distractions or external events.
  • Persistence: This refers to how determinedly a baby will stick to an activity or task and their attention span.
  • Sensitivity: Sensitivity is measured by how sensitive a child is to changes in their physical environment, to things like hot and cold, or the itch of a tag, or even their own teeth coming in.

How temperament corresponds with adult personalities

The New York Longitudinal Study followed 133 subjects for 30 years, from babyhood well into adulthood. In that time, they did find that some of the traits they measured in those little babies kept popping back up in those people’s adult lives. That doesn’t mean that a personality is set in stone in infancy – life events do have an effect on personality as it develops. Temperament has an effect on how a child responds to those events though, and more than one study has shown how traits seen in early childhood can remain, even as they grow. For example, babies who hated bathtime because of physical sensitivity generally grew fairly comfortable with bathing as they grew older, but often still felt physically sensitive to changes in their environments.

Traits observed in later infancy and toddlerhood tended to be tied more strongly to adult behavior than traits observed in very young babies. Babies’ temperaments and behavior styles do change, but it’s often hard to predict how those changes might go. Parents tend to have better results trying to fit their parenting style to their child’s behavioral style than the other way around. Temperament is thought to play a large part in how well a child responds to a certain parenting style as they grow – children with flexible or variable temperaments may not always adjust well to a strict parenting style, for example.

The bottom line

Although a child’s temperament may help dictate some of their personality development, nothing is set in stone. Baby will learn much from you and the world around them as they grow over these next months and years.

  • Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, Richard Lerner, Jacqueline Lerner. “New York Longitudinal Study, 1956-1988.” Murray Research Archive Dataverse (Harvard University). The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2016. Web.
  • Christian Jarrett. “Clues to your personality appeared before you could talk.” BBC. BBC, September 9 2016. Web.
  • Robert Needleman. “Temperament: What is it?” RaisingChildren. Raising Children Network, October 26 2011. Web.
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