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The arousal system is the body’s built-in wiring that regulates our fight, flight, or freeze response, energy levels, sleep cycles, digestion, heart rate, breathing, and attention. Like a command center, it lies within our brains, scanning our environment and absorbing everything that is going on around us. When our arousal system perceives anything new or different—any change, any surprise—it sends a signal to the body’s biological systems: Pay attention! Be on alert for potential danger.

When a possible threat is detected, the control center calls for a burst of energy, speed, and strength, telling us, Gear up! Be ready to fight, flee, or freeze! It then accelerates the heart, pulse, and breathing rates, increases blood flow to our muscles, and shifts our focus to the threat at hand. If the information is unimportant and can be ignored, our biological systems are directed to idle in a balanced, quiet state. This ability to accelerate or slow our biological reactions according to the needs of the situation is called self-regulation.

Your baby’s spirited arousal system is apparent when:

  • Your baby bursts into tears while another baby in the same situation sleeps soundly.
  • The strategies your friends swear by do not work with your baby.
  • It is nearly impossible to lay your baby down because the moment you lean forward, she startles herself awake.
  • At ten months old your baby is “emptying” the dishwasher, finding his own snack in the pantry, and already refusing to take no for an answer.
  • The upsets and shrieking come out of seemingly nowhere and take forever to subside.

The arousal system of these babies is set to trigger faster and calm more slowly. At any given moment, a spirited baby, compared to an “easy” baby, is in a state of heightened awareness and reactivity.

While everyone has an arousal system—babies, children, and adults alike—there are stark individual differences in how our systems are calibrated. We vary widely in the amount of information it takes to trip our control center’s threat response and how swiftly our biological systems jump into action. Think solid Subaru versus high-strung Lamborghini. (Both are great cars, just different.)

Spirited infants are defined by their highly reactive arousal systems. That is why spirited babies, unlike their low-key counterparts, need extra amounts of attention, touch, and assistance to calm themselves. Through our support, spirited babies are given the opportunity to rehearse and practice the process of regulating.

Spirited infants are defined by their highly reactive arousal systems. That is why spirited babies, unlike their low-key counterparts, need extra amounts of attention, touch, and assistance to calm themselves.

Understanding the arousal system helps explain why the right response for the spirited baby often runs contrary to traditionally recommended practices, especially those that encourage ignoring a baby’s crying or not responding quickly. Rather than creating a “bad habit,” our warm responses change the wiring of their brains. New neural connections form. The babies gradually gain the strength and finesse to smoothly downshift and accelerate their finely tuned engines as needed. Working with their arousal system instead of against it changes everything.

Spirited babies can react with such intensity you may fear something is wrong, especially when you compare your child with babies who are not spirited. Many parents of spirited babies worry that their child is not only different but perhaps facing psychological or medical issues. If you have concerns, such as your baby not gaining weight at the expected rate, demonstrating delays in reaching developmental milestones, failing to make eye contact, or not responding to your voice and actions, you will want to consult with your pediatrician.

If your child does have any types of delays or differences—which are separate from your baby’s arousal system—the approach to parenting in Raising Your Spirited Baby will still put you on a wonderful path to supporting your child, yourself, and your family. But additional therapeutic aid may be needed to address the concerns that are outside typical behaviors or responses.

The vast majority of spirited infants, though, are not more likely to have early signs of autism, ADHD, or other challenges that keep parents up at night. When given the sensitive and responsive care they need, spirited babies will develop normally, happily, and according to the expected milestones. In fact, they often excel.