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  • Bryna Sampey, IBCLC

The Goldilocks-Unicorn Spectrum of Infant Temperament

One of the most popular things I teach in my classes is something I call the "Goldlocks-Unicorn Spectrum." It's the idea that babies are born with their personalities intact- and that those personalities fall along a continuum. The "Goldilocks" babies are a lot more particular about their environment, and have a lot to say about what they find upsetting. Every parent has met a person like this- or heard horror stories about babies like this! We all sort of dread having this Goldilocks baby, don't we? The "colicky baby" that cries all the time? Goldilocks baby!

And on the other end of the spectrum, we have the "Unicorn" baby. This baby is generally okay with whatever is going on. They are chill, bro. They don't have a ton to say about what their environment is doing, and have a higher tolerance for change. This is everyone's "dream baby," right?

Well, it turns out that there are only 15% of babies at either end of this spectrum, while roughly 70% of babies fall somewhere in between. If you DO have what you are certain is 100% a Goldilocks or a Unicorn baby (and that'd be about 30% of you reading this here if my anecdotal math holds up) then you should know there are benefits and drawbacks to both!

I've made a handy infographic:

Goldilocks babies might like or dislike anything, depending on a hundred other factors- these parents quickly become adept both at listening to, and understanding, their baby, but also at reading the environment for potential red flags. Awesome! These babies are great communicators and when responded to with warmth, love, and affection, do very well later in life.

Who? Me? Goldilocks? No, couldn't be!

The downside is that this can get exhausting. Parents of Goldilocks babies need a strong support network for breaks and self-care. Good friends who understand that the parents may not need (and probably won't want) your parenting advice, but might just want an empathetic ear and shoulder to cry/snooze/drool on.

These babies benefit from infant massage, routines, and baby-led family schedules. This means that parent or parents will build their day around what baby's regular rhythms seem to be. This can take some time to catch on to- but once it's in place, life gets so much better! Gentle tummy time for at least 20 minutes a day (broken up into short frequent intervals- like at diaper changes) can be especially helpful for these little guys.

It's okay to feel frustrated or mourn the loss of the expected postpartum period- we all have an idea of what parenting is going to be like...and very few people who end up with a Goldilocks baby expected to be where they find themselves! It takes some time to get used to! There is joy in it, though, not to worry!

It turns out that all babies have a little bit of Goldilocks- too. Researchers have discovered what they call the "Goldilocks Effect" in infant learning. This means a baby can choose what they pay attention to based on how easy or difficult the concept is for them to grasp. Too easy? Move on. Too complex? Shut down. Just right? Target acquired!

Unicorn babies tend to the other extreme. They might sleep straight through feedings, blissfully unaware of their parents' concern about ideal feeding frequency and milestones. This is the baby everyone sort of hopes to have-- until you realize you wish they'd say something about how well they like a certain situation.

What unicorn? Where?

These babies sometimes end up losing weight or skipping feedings because well-intentioned advice givers often say "never wake a sleeping baby!" and meanwhile they skip feedings and milk supply dwindles.

On the upside, though, they usually take to dream-feeds and let parents have a lot of latitude with things like room temperature, positioning while holding, and overstimulating events- like dinners out or parties.

This is a baby who is generally content to just do whatever- and so parents need to work hard to make sure baby's comfortable and fed frequently, while also taking care of themselves, too. These babies do well with skin on skin tummy time and cuddles, lots of face to face interaction, and parents that are adept at reading the early feeding cues!

These parents get great at anticipating their babies' needs and babies tend to be social butterflies when they get older- loquacious and adventurous!

The reality is that, even though we all have 100% unique and special individuals we are raising, that 70% of babies fall somewhere on the spectrum. So for 7 out of every 10 of you that read this- take the bits of Unicorn alongside the bits of Goldilocks, and know that if you listen to your parenting instincts about what's right for your baby, what they need at this moment, and how they're're going to do just fine!

Happy parenting!

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