Even though your infant can't do much more than smile, poop, eat, and cry, it's hard to resist the urge to gaze into her little face and imagine what she'll be like a few years down the road. Will she be sweet-natured and shy like her dad, or a social butterfly like her mom? A rocket scientist or class clown? For the most part you'll have to wait and see. Still, the first year does provide compelling hints about how your child will turn out.
When you change your baby's diaper, does he make a distressed face that seems to say, "Hey, Mommy, get your hands off my bottom," and wave his tiny fists in the air? Or does he smile and coo as if getting a new nappy is one more blissful moment in his Disneyland day? Either way, your child is giving you a snapshot of his personality. "Temperament is something you're born with, and it often remains consistent throughout your life," says Linda Dunlap, Ph.D., professor of developmental psychology at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, New York. A recent study at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, bears this out: Babies who were very fussy at 3 to 4 weeks old were more likely to have anxiety problems by the time they were tweens.
Still, temperament isn't set in stone. Studies at Harvard University tested to see how infants reacted to unfamiliar sights, sounds, and people, and then monitored them as they grew up. The 10 percent of babies on either end of the spectrum -- those who got very upset when exposed to new things and those who hardly reacted at all -- tended to retain their high-strung or laid-back personas as young adults. But the personalities of the roughly 80 percent of babies who fell somewhere in the middle were more likely to change over time. "Just because your 1-year-old bursts into tears at the drop of a hat doesn't mean he's going to grow up to be a kid who cries all the time," says Ross Thompson, Ph.D., professor of developmental psychology at the University of California-Davis. "As his brain matures, he may learn to control his emotions better."
While much of a baby's personality is genetically programmed, his environment also has an important influence. The way a parent responds to a child's easygoing or demanding nature can either reinforce his basic temperament or help to moderate it. Kids who go with the flow tend to get rewarded for their easy behavior. "But when a baby is difficult, his parents may say things like, 'Will you lie still so I can get that diaper on you?'" explains Kevin Leman, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author of The Birth Order Book. Taking that tone can actually make your child more defiant and argumentative.
Keep in mind that there's a positive side to every personality. Demanding babies can grow up to be driven, highly successful adults. And when a shy, clingy infant becomes more confident and independent, you may find yourself missing the snuggling from the early days.
What you can do now: If you recognize early on that your child becomes overly distressed when someone other than you picks him up or when he has to take a bath, look for ways to make him feel secure and happy. That could mean establishing a lovey to help him get through stressful transitions or giving him sponge baths instead of making him go into the tub. However, once your child is a toddler, slowly introducing him to novel situations, like a group playdate or a new babysitter, will help him learn to accept them.
No matter what your baby's temperament seems to be, it's important to avoid labeling him as such, advises Michele Borba, Ed.D., a Parents advisor and author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. If you constantly tell people, "Dylan's a cranky boy," they may expect your child to act that way, and your statement could wind up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Your baby's general outlook on life depends at least in part on when she joins your family. "If she's your firstborn, she has greater odds of being a high-achieving leader, such as an airline pilot, a principal, or a business owner," says Dr. Leman. And -- don't tell her younger siblings someday -- oldest kids tend to be slightly smarter as well. A Norwegian study that looked at nearly 250,000 18- and 19-year-old men found that on average those who were oldest children had an IQ three points higher than that of the next oldest sibling and four points higher than the one after that.
One big reason? You. "The oldest child gets his parents all to himself for a period of time," points out Joseph Price, Ph.D., professor of economics at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah. According to his research, firstborn children between ages 4 and 13 spend 3,000 more hours with their parents -- roughly an hour a day -- than each subsequent sibling does. That's because parents have to spread themselves thinner once they have two or more kids. So even if you're always around the baby, he may spend a significant chunk of that time sitting in a bouncy seat rather than sitting in your lap listening to a story.
While younger sibs may get less one-on-one time with you, they benefit in other ways. "By the time a second child comes along, you've probably become a better parent, and an older sibling often helps out by teaching a little brother or sister what he knows," says Dr. Price. Because he needs to compete for your attention, the youngest child in the family tends to be more outgoing, often developing "Look at me" skills and a class-clown personality (a long list of comedians, including Steve Carell, Jon Stewart, and Ellen DeGeneres, are the baby of their family).
Middle children often become masters of negotiation and compromise -- so they can keep the peace between their older and younger siblings and earn their busy parents' approval. And only children, who tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time in the company of adults, are usually more reliable and mature than typical kids, notes Dr. Leman. Despite the "only lonely" stereotype, growing up without live-in playmates doesn't seem to hurt their social skills any. A recent Ohio State University study of more than 13,000 teens and tweens found that singletons were just as popular as those who had siblings.
What you can do now: Make a concerted effort to spend as much alone time with your younger kids as you did with your firstborn when she was the same age. If your eldest child is playing a computer game, use the opportunity to look at books or do a puzzle with her little brother. Also resist the urge to compare your kids' development ("Gee, Betsy was already sitting up at 6 months, but Tara is certainly taking her sweet time!"). As long as your youngest is developing within the normal range, there's no need to concern yourself with whether she's advancing at the same speed.
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