©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
The email ran on for over three pages—three desperate pages. “I absolutely love my baby girl,” Chloe wrote. “Megan is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. She is barely three weeks old, however, and I am completely exhausted. Some mothers tell me one thing and some another. That’s confusing and frustrating! What do I do to survive?”
I could picture the scene as I continued reading. “Megan seems to need about half as much sleep as I do,” the e-mail continued. “And unless I am talking, singing, whistling, or playing with Megan, she is cross. She wants to be moving some part of her body almost constantly, like a wind-up toy that never runs down. Her pediatrician told me that Megan is perfectly normal—for an extrovert. Help!”
Prior to going on maternity leave Chloe worked as a researcher for a chemical company. An acknowledged Introvert, she was accustomed to spending eight or ten hours a day in her small laboratory. During those hours she might interact with two or three other persons at most. What a shock to bring an extremely extroverted baby home from the hospital! And she was in effect a single parent as Megan’s father, on duty overseas, was unavailable to help share parenting duty.
Rereading Chloe’s email, I couldn’t help smiling. Not because of her plight, but because barely a week earlier another email had arrived describing the opposite situation: a very extroverted mother, who needed a great deal of stimulation in the environment just to stay awake and alert, was concerned about her new baby who, based on exhibited behaviors, appeared to be introverted and actually needed protection from too much stimulation.
Decades ago C. J. Jung surmised that each individual could be placed on a metaphorical continuum. PET scans have helped to validate his surmise related to differing needs for stimulation. Research has refined what is meant by differences, too. For example, Dr. Laney wrote in her book The Introvert Advantage that Extroverts are not necessarily more outgoing than Introverts.
EAI Continuum with Population Estimates
Your most energy efficient placement on the EAI Continuum is thought to be in place at birth. Staff in newborn nurseries can often point out the babies who are Extroverted (e.g., tend to need less sleep, seem more content when they are in the mainstream of activity) and those who are Introverted (e.g., tend to need more sleep, seem more content to be placed off to one side and only handled when it’s time to eat or have a diaper changed). Ambiversion is considered a label of exclusion. That is, if the infant is not Extroverted or Introverted, the baby is likely Ambiverted.
The brain-function pattern with which people are most familiar is their own. When both parent and child fall in the same range, there are more similarities than differences. But when parent and child find themselves on opposite ends of the metaphoric EAI Continuum (notwithstanding that opposites often attract, at least in adulthood) it can be disconcerting.
When sensory data enters the brain stem and the Thalamus begins the triage process to send the data to the correct decoding centers in the cerebrum, the Reticular Activating System (RAS) alters the sensory data—in some brains. In the brains of Extroverts, the data gets reduced (think “miniatures”) so the brain not only can handle a great deal of sensory stimulation but also craves it and can become bored, cranky, and sleepy without it.
For Introverts, the opposite happens. The sensory data becomes magnified (think “Jack and the Bean Stalk”) so the brain needs very little stimulation. When the environment contains more stimulation that is optimum for that brain, it can become overwhelmed quickly. Without sufficient protection from stimulation the individual may become ill. (The data appears not to undergo either reduction or magnification in the brains of Ambiverts.)
What can parents do when a child’s position on the EAI Continuum is markedly different? First, pay attention to the child’s behaviors in relation to different environments and the amount of stimulation each contains. Second, be willing to spend time trying different strategies. It’s often a process of trial, error, and finally some success. Realize that sometimes the same strategy can work with more than one type of brain when the level of intensity is altered.
Following are a few real-life examples to try.
1. Play Baroque music in the background. Calm music played very softly may soothe an introvert although some will want silence. Energetic music played more loudly may provide needed stimulation for an extrovert.
2. Hang a mobile over the crib. A silent mobile (e.g., floating clouds, colorful butterflies, cars or planes for boys, pictures of human faces for girls) may work for an introvert. A mobile that makes sounds or plays music may work better for an extrovert.
3. Carry the baby in a body sling. An intravert may fall asleep to the sense of the parent’s heartbeat. An extrovert may obtain needed stimulation from the environment. If the parent is extroverted, listen to an iPod through earphones to protect the introverted baby from the sound. If the parent is introverted, wear music earplugs (e.g., the decibel level is diminished) while playing music in the background for the baby.
4. Cordon off an area in the room in which the baby can crawl and move around safely at will. Rotate toys regularly to help keep the extrovert stimulated. A hanging harness swing may offer variety as well as exercise. Some introverted babies like to observe from such a position, as well. (Avoid using the television as a baby-sitter. Some researchers recommend that children watch no television until after the age of two or three years.)
5. Solicit help from a family member or friend who shares a similar position with the baby on the EAI Continuum. Arrange for them to spend time together: extrovert with extrovert and introvert with introvert. Be delighted when they get along, minimizing any tendency you have to be jealous, to wish things were different, or to feel bad because you and your child have differing brain-style needs.
6. Teach the baby to use sign language. This can reduce frustration and enhance communication. Studies have shown that the infant brain may know what it wants to say long before the functions of verbal articulation are in place. Sign-language books are available to help you and your baby learn simple words and phrases.
7. Above all, learn to honor and enjoy the differences. Remind yourself of how time flies. Today’s frustrations are a blip on the screen of life. Make all the happy memories you can—for both of you. Before you know it, the baby may be producing your grandchildren.
Remember that the extremes represented on the EAI Continuum are not good or bad, right or wrong, happy or sad—unless you make them so. They do represent very different forms of innate giftedness. Your introverted child may grow up to be a writer, composer, researcher, artist, playwright, philosopher, accountant, or university professor. Your extroverted infant may turn out to be a negotiator, swat-team member, trouble-shooter, competitor in extreme sports, business consultant, supervisor, explorer to outer space, or the one who manages to cap the oil well. This world needs them all!
Note: Additional information can be found in Brain references, EAI Continuum; Practical Applications, Extroversion-Introversion.