Why is our baby so serious?

How can you tell if a baby is happy? Our baby Josh is six months old.  He seems quite alert and intelligent. Sometimes I worry that he doesn't seem as happy as other babies.  He often has a very serious expression on his face. It's not that he never smiles or laughs, but he needs coaxing.  His grandmother says he's grumpy and his grandfather says he's spoiled.  I think that’s because he doesn’t seem happy to see them when they visit and he sometimes cries if they try too hard to get him to laugh.  Is there anything we can do to make him more cheerful? 

Babies don’t all look like the round jolly-faced cherubs we see in advertisements. In fact, some babies, just like some adults, seem to be naturally serious  in just the way you are describing Josh.  They reserve their smiles and laughter for times when they are really amused.  If you see a smile you know that they're absolutely delighted, and a laugh means that something is really, really funny.  

A serious baby like Josh may not give parents or grandparents the kind of instant feedback that a more cheerful or outgoing baby delivers with every interaction.  Parents of a serious child sometimes worry that they are doing something wrong or that their child isn’t responding to them.  We tend to think that if a baby isn’t smiling he isn’t noticing (or appreciating) what we say or do.  But some babies show their interest by watching and listening, and the signs that they are engaged are subtle—eyes widening, tracking conversations, turning to hear a parents’ voice or moving up and down when you sing to them.

As you start to tune into Josh's unique way of relating to you and the world you’ll be better able to understand who he is as a person and describe him to others. You’ll become more aware of what is pleasing to him without waiting for a smile to let you know if he is happy or amused. Look for the cues that tell you when he’s in a good mood or he is enjoying the way you are playing with him.  Does he lean forward when he’s interested?  Does he wiggle his toes or wave his hands when you bring out a toy he likes?  How does he let you know when he wants to eat, and how does he let you know if he likes what you’ve offered him?  If Josh is not happy—fussy or fretful—how does he let you know the way he wants to be soothed?  Does he quiet gradually or can you distract him by offering him something interesting to capture his attention? 

Some babies have characteristics that can make them hard for parents to figure out.  Here are some other characteristics of normal babies that can puzzle parents:

• The "non-cuddly" baby:  Some babies prefer to move around rather than be held.  They may seem to stiffen a little when you hold them close.  A baby who acts as though he needs "space" may make a parent feel as though he doesn't want love and attention.  That's not true, of course.  He may prefer that you talk to him or show him things rather than cuddle him.  A non-cuddly baby needs to be held, but usually in certain ways, and you have to figure out what works.

•  The "unpredictable" baby:  Some babies sleep in very irregular patterns, acting tired one evening and staying up late the next, or having short or long or no naps during the day.  An unpredictable baby can become grouchy from fatigue and act unhappy when he is really just sleepy.  Parents of these babies may wind up exhausted and grouchy themselves from trying to react to the baby's unpredictable schedule.  Parents may have to impose a schedule and hope that their baby will gradually adapt to it.

•  The "intense" or "passionate" baby:  An intense baby may scream or cry loudly whenever he feels distressed, unlike a milder baby who might simply frown or whimper.  If a baby reacts strongly to anything he doesn't like, it can be hard to know how to respond.  You can’t quiet the baby every time he gets worked up, since he probably needs to blow off steam.  You have to learn how much distress is just normal for that particular baby.

  • The "slow-to-warm-up" baby:  Some babies take a while to get used to new people or places. These babies smile much more often at home than when they are in a new environment.  Parents of a "slow-to-warm-up" baby may feel as though their friends and family don't understand how delightful their baby is most of the time, because he acts so differently when he is out.  

All of these characteristics I've described are part of what is called infant temperament.  Temperament is a child's behavioral style that seems to be inborn.  This style is as much a part of your child as the color of him eyes.  It can be hard for parents to have a baby or young child who doesn't fit the mainstream ideal of a "good baby"--the smiling, cheerful, friendly, outgoing, easily adaptable child who we see on TV commercials.  However, babies and children differ, just the way adults do.  Children like Josh who don't fit the average "ideal" temperament need lots of sensitivity and acceptance from their parents, and their parents need lots of support.  If you are feeling frustrated or worried, talk to your health care provider or an infant care specialist who can help you figure out how to engage your baby and read his responses.  Most babies like Josh don't need to be fixed, they just need to be understood and valued for who they are