Before your baby is even born, you can't help but wonder about their personality. Will they be easygoing? Excitable? A prankster? A bookworm? Then, once your little bundle of joy arrives, you start looking for signs that they're going to turn out to be one way or the other. Do they seem upset in new situations? Are they scared of strangers? Traits like this may have you wondering whether your baby will grow up to be a quiet person.
But what does "quiet" mean, exactly? While it can be used to mean shyness, Jenn Granneman, author of The Secret Lives of Introverts and founder of IntrovertDear.com, says, "I use 'quiet' to mean introverted, as shyness and introversion are not the same thing. Introversion is a preference for calm, minimally stimulating environments, and shyness is the fear of negative judgment from others. However, many introverts are shy, so there is some overlap."
And introversion is not a rare personality type: "One-third to one-half of humanity is introverted," says Heidi Kasevich, Ph.D., of the Quiet Revolution's Quiet Schools Network. (She also notes that personality type is somewhat heritable, so if you're an introvert, there's a decent chance your baby is, too.) But even with so many introverts among us, says Kasevich, "the extravert ideal is so dominant in America today." Particularly if you yourself are an extravert, there can be an "understanding gap" between you and your introverted child — you might not even realize that you've unconsciously set expectations for them to conform to the cultural ideal of extraversion, explains Kasevich. So it's important to recognize and nurture your child's quietness.
If you think your baby shows signs of being a quiet kid, Linda L. Dunlap, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Marist College, strongly urges you not to think there is something wrong with your child. Once they're a little older, she advises, "[a]llow them the solitude they need and comfort when dealing with new situations." If they seem a bit more cautious than other children, consider that a good thing, she says. "We need there to be cautious individuals to help us consider the 'risks.' Encourage quiet children to engage in playtime with adults and other children, but initially in one-to-one settings, rather than forcing this type of child to try to 'fit in' within large groups and in new settings."
Of course, "there are times when your child will need to conform to meet the needs of the specific situation," says Christine Fonseca, speaker, coach, and author of several books including Quiet Kids. "For example, if your child is needing alone time to decompress, but you are in the middle of the grocery store, your child may struggle, demonstrating significant tantrum behaviors as a result of the need for quiet. Since you may not be able to do anything to immediately provide quiet time to your child, you will need to teach him or her how to self-soothe in that situation. Life won’t cater to each of our individual needs. Part of being resilient is learning how and when we need to adjust our behaviors in order to function."
No matter what, Maureen Healy, author of several books including Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child, encourages parents to remember that "quiet isn’t bad or good; it just is." A parent's aspiration should be to learn "how to help a child take whatever personality or temperament they have and make it an asset or goal," she says. "We all have things to learn or we wouldn’t be here."
To that, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow at Temple University and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, adds, "Our children come to us as members of our family; they’re not ... something that we can totally determine. In fact, we know that we respond to them as much as they do to us. Loud children often demand more attention; quiet children may deserve it but are often put in the background." She recommends that parents "notice what your chid’s needs are, what their temperament is, look in their eyes, try to get a sense of their feelings." When we do that, "they’ll grow up to be who they are, not necessarily in our image, and that’s pretty darn exciting."
So if you're curious to know whether your baby might grow up to be quiet, here are some signs to look for.
1. They're very sensitive to their environment
One sign of a quiet baby is that they have a strong reaction if they're put in a situation where there's too much going on. Granneman says that quiet babies "may cry or thrash their arms and legs when they’re in places where there is a lot of noise, activity, or novelty." She points to work by Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman, which found that babies who are very reactive to unfamiliar stimuli may grow up to be shy or timid adults.
If you're seeing these signs with your little one, Kasevich says, "you can create an environment where your infant will thrive," making adjustments like lowering the lights, reducing the noise, and creating a "zone of safety" for them.
2. They're curious but cautious
All babies are curious, but they don't all show it in the same way. Quiet babies, according to Granneman, "[m]ay be very curious about the world around them but cautious about exploring it." In fact, she notes, many introverts have a natural sense of curiosity and often notice details that others might miss. "But they tend to be observers, preferring to watch and reflect rather than jump in and do."
3. They're slow to warm up to new people
When you introduce a quiet baby to new people or situations, they may not exactly squirm for joy. They're much more likely to need some time to get acclimated. But Granneman points out that this tendency isn't a one-way street: "Kagan and Snidman found that parents play an important [role] in their baby’s future temperament. If the parents were protective, the tendency to be shy and timid was strengthened. However, when parents of timid infants encouraged some sociability and boldness, the children became teenagers who showed less inhibition than their more fearful counterparts."
So while you'll want to respect your baby's natural inclinations, don't misread their cues as temperamental traits that are set in stone. And when they're a little older, Kasevich advises parents to teach their children techniques for self-soothing. That way "they can recharge and feel that sense of safety."
4. They're easily startled
Sometimes I get so absorbed in whatever I'm doing that, when my partner comes into the room and says hi, I literally jump and let out an involuntary squeal. (This makes him feel really bad, so now he usually announces his presence from a distance before coming in.) If your baby reacts similarly to unexpected noises, that might be a sign of a quiet personality, says Granneman. "According to Dr. Rebecca Chicot, a parenting expert, babies who jump at every little squeak or noise are more likely to be introverts."
5. They had a low birth weight or were born pre-term
If your baby was born very premature (before 32 weeks) or with a very low birth weight (less than 3.3 pounds), they are more likely to be introverts as adults, says Granneman, citing a 2015 study. The sooner a parent is aware of this effect, the better, said Professor Dieter Wolke, the author of the study: "If identified early, parents could be provided with techniques to foster their child’s social skills to help compensate for socially withdrawn personality characteristics."
6. They lose themselves in solo play
"If your baby spends hours with a certain toy, content on their own, they may be an introvert," says Granneman. But don't mistake that intense preoccupation for a lack of curiosity. "Many introverted children have an inner world that is alive and present for them, and they easily entertain themselves with their imagination," Granneman notes.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.