A psychologist examines the origins of temperament

Masha Gartstein’s research tools include a witch’s mask, a plush pink pig, a rattle, and Winnie the Pooh.

The resulting smiles and frowns of the babies who come through her cozy laboratory at Washington State University show response patterns that Gartstein believes are early indicators of a child’s temperament.

“No child is a blank slate,” says Gartstein. Parents who realize that and make efforts to adapt to their baby’s temperament can help the child cultivate coping skills long before he’s walking and talking.

Her work, which is funded in part by a $140,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, looks at how and when an infant’s temperament develops and what effect parent-child interactions can have on it.

“I never imagined myself working with babies,” says Gartstein, an assistant professor at WSU and a licensed clinical psychologist. Initially her focus was on children with behavioral issues, but as she treated patients, she realized that characteristics like impulsivity and ignoring directions don’t just pop up out of the blue. “There were all these incredible early markers,” she says.

The social smile, for example, usually appears as early as two months of age. During the same period, infants start expressing a range of reactions including fear and anger.

Cooing, cuddliness, fussing while being dressed, showing distress at new things, and how easily the baby can be soothed all add up to a baby’s reactivity. This is the foundation for what will later become the child’s ability to regulate emotions. How parents respond now may make the difference later between a brief cry and an endless tantrum, says Gartstein.

When a child has problems in his social and emotional development, it’s often because the parent’s expectations don’t match up with the child’s temperament, she says.

The parents should pay attention to their baby’s reactions, especially if the reactions seem excessive, says Gartstein. For example, if a parent knows that the infant is fearful with new people, the parent can plan introductions in a more careful way. Instead of putting the infant into the arms of a stranger, the parent can ease the child into the new experience, staying close so the infant feels secure.

Gartstein’s most recent effort involves examining and recording the responses of 200 infants from the Pullman area five different times their first year. She trained a group of undergraduate psychology majors to work with the babies. On a recent afternoon, Elisa Millard led eight-month-old Brandon and his mother through a set series of activities. One, called the arc of toys, involved spreading a rattle, plastic cups, and stuffed animals in a semicircle around Brandon to see how he played with them. Another involved Millard holding a fairly patient Brandon for a full minute to gauge his response to contact with a stranger.

All these actions were videotaped by Millard’s classmate Jeremy Canfield of Bremerton and saved for review by Gartstein and her students, who will measure and record each baby’s level of reaction for each activity. “These data are so valuable,” says Gartstein. The data collected will ultimately serve as a base from which she and her students can create and test hypotheses.

Treating behavioral problems later in childhood often requires changing patterns in both the child and parents. It can be time-consuming and expensive. “When you talk about changing something as automatic as parenting your kid, it’s hard,” says Gartstein.

Part of the early intervention that Gartstein suggests is as basic as parents learning when to comfort their baby and when to let the baby sort things out on his own. Depending on the baby, “it varies a great deal,” says Gartstein.

In today’s society, these lessons are even more necessary, say others in Gartstein’s field.

“New parents are often isolated from their extended families and other sources of support, and the new baby does not arrive with a manual of instructions,” says Gartstein’s mentor, Mary Rothbart, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Oregon. “Instead, community support is needed to provide the kinds of information that will give their babies the best possible start in life.”

Gartstein didn’t just set out to develop a mental health protocol. “She realized that programs are often not based on reliable information and valid measures,” says Rothbart. So the WSU psychologist has created a way to get data from infants and families. Gartstein will share her studies with other psychologists to give them a better understanding of how and when babies develop their temperament, information that could help them in treating patients.

To put it simply, the parent needs to adapt to the infant’s needs and create conditions that limit the infant’s distress, says Gartstein.

“When parents learn these very concrete things about their child’s temperament, they become more sensitive and more responsive,” says Gartstein. That helps the infant form a more secure attachment to the family, and as a consequence, the baby will exhibit fewer behavioral problems throughout childhood, she says. “Frankly, you can be a lot more effective with a lot less effort early on.”