Module 1: Promoting Mental Health in Infancy

Smiling BabyTemperament

Baby’s Unique Personality

Every baby has his own unique needs, wants, and behaviors. Temperamental styles are reflected in the baby’s activity level, biological rhythms, approach/withdrawal, adaptability, mood, intensity, sensitivity, distractibility, and persistence. Families can best support their baby by first understanding his distinct temperament.

Questions to Ask

  • How would you describe your baby’s temperament?
  • How content/calm/intense/active is he?
  • How does he respond to changes in routine?
  • Is he upset by bright lights or loud noises?

Provider Tips

  • Praise parents for recognizing and responding to their baby’s needs.
  • Demonstrate soothing and calming techniques and encourage parents to try to remain calm and patient when their baby is fussy.
  • Some parents may describe infant motivations that seem more like those of an older child or adult. If this should happen, ask questions such as: “What makes you think your baby is doing things to make you mad?”
  • Parents often respond to their baby based on memories of experiences they’ve had with others. Ask parents: “Does your baby remind you of anyone in your family? If so, whom?” If the associations seem negative, help parents see their baby as a unique individual.
  • Using the guidance listed below, help parents understand their baby’s unique temperament (quiet, active, intense) and how they can be "in tune" with their baby's needs and feelings.

Guidance for Parents

  • Every baby has his own unique personality or temperament that is unlike any other. You can begin to understand your baby’s temperament by:
    • Watching how he responds to you and the other people around him
    • Noticing how he reacts to objects he sees, hears, and touches
    • Observing how active or quiet he seems to be
    • Becoming more aware of his moods and behaviors
  • Others who care for your baby should also understand his temperament. Help them by describing your baby’s likes, dislikes, needs, and responses.
  • It is normal to feel frustrated when your baby is fussy and hard to console. No matter how frustrating it may be, never, never shake, hit, or slap your baby. Shaking can lead to blindness; can damage your baby’s eyes, brain, or spinal cord; and can even cause seizures or death.

If your baby is highly sensitive:

    • Keep his surroundings calm and quiet
    • Dim the lights and keep noise levels low
    • Limit the number of people who handle him

If your baby is irritable or cranky:

    • Understand that he may be more sensitive to things and people around him
    • Try using slower routines with him
    • Give him more time to adjust to changes
Resources for Providers and Families

For Providers

Temperament in Early Development: A Primer for the Perplexed PDF

The Idea of Temperament: Does it Help Parents Understand Their Babies? PDF

Area of Concern: Infants with Special Health Care Needs more information

Infants with special health care needs (premature infants, infants with cognitive disabilities or developmental delays) may not initially express their preferences and sensitivities as clearly as other infants. These infants may exhibit varying levels of responsiveness and less overall predictability.

Primary care providers can help parents to:

  • Recognize their infant’s subtle signals and find ways to soothe their infant (making infant’s fingers accessible for sucking, speaking softly, touching repeatedly, and rocking)
  • Identify signs of stress (change in skin color or tone, hiccups) and signs of social availability (engaging facial expression, extended arms and legs, clasping of the hands)
  • Understand that they will not always be able to console their infant
  • Develop ways of dealing with frustration and seeking support /respite from family and friends

For Families

Tips on Temperament

Temperament Characteristics:

Activity Level

From Low Reactors to Big Reactors

Reaction to New People

Reaction to Change

Persistence, Patience, and Frustration

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