If you have been around various babies while they were growing up, you may have noticed that some are relatively calm, easily soothed, while others can be agitated quite easily, and be very fussy. Are you doing something wrong? Does it really mean anything? Lets take a look at some of these issues:

Temperament refers to how a child behaves, as opposed to what they are doing or why they are doing it. An interesting fact to know about temperament is that upon birth, infants will show a general disposition, due to genetic factors, and this temperament actually lasts into adolescence. (Studies done by: Rothbart & Bates, 1998; Lemery et al., 1999) However, this does not mean that a certain position of temperament is permanent and not subject to change. A child’s upbringing can drastically change their temperament. (Studies done by: McCrae et al., 2000) In fact, some children have a rather dynamic temperament, it changing rather fluidly as they grow older. (Studies done by: Rothbart, Derryberry, and Hershey, 2000)

There are many dimensions that define temperament, and because of this, Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess performed a large scale study of a group of infants that is known today as the New York Longitudinal Study, and they state that babies can be attributed to one of these profiles, of which I will quote directly (Feldman, pg. 204):

Easy BabiesEasy babies have a positive disposition. Their body functions operate regularly, and they are adaptable. They are generally positive, showing curiosity about new situations, and their emotions are moderate or low in intensity. This category applies to about 40 percent (the largest number) of infants.

Difficult BabiesDifficult babies have more negative moods and are slow to adapt to new situations. When confronted with a new situation, they tend to withdraw. About 10 percent of infants belong in this category.

Slow-to-warm – Slow-to-warm babies are inactive, showing relatively calm reactions to their environment. Their moods are generally negative, and they withdraw from new situations, adapting slowly. Approximately 15 percent of infants are slow-to-warm.

Looking at the figures, I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering where the other 35 percent are, right? Well, that 35 percent of remaining infants cannot be consistently categorized. These remaining children show various mixes of characteristics from the above categories. To give an example, an infant may be mostly happy, but react negatively to new situations, or others may just have very unstable temperament.

To give some more insight into the dimensions of temperament, here is an easy to refer to chart for your viewing convenience:

---------Dimensions of Temperament______________Dimension---------

Activity level ----------------------------------------------- The amount of time spent being active, versus time spent inactive.

Approach-withdrawal ---------------------------------- How they react to a new person or object, and is based upon whether they accept or withdraw from the person or object.

Adaptability ----------------------------------------------- How quickly and easily a child is able to adapt to changes in their environment.

Quality of mood ----------------------------------------- The balance between friendly, joyful and pleasant behavior with unpleasant, unfriendly behavior.

Attention span and tenacity -------------------------- How much time a child will spend on a certain activity, and the effect of distraction of the activity.

Distractibility --------------------------------------------- The susceptibility of behavior change when subjected to stimuli in their environment.

Regularity ------------------------------------------------ The regularity of general body functions (hunger, excretion, sleeping, waking)

Intensity of reaction ------------------------------------ Pretty self explanatory, how high an energy level the child has in response to an event or stimuli

Threshold of responsiveness ---------------------- How intense stimulation has to be to generate a response.

Now things start to tie together and get a bit more interesting. By now you have probably figured out your own child’s temperament, and perhaps you are concerned if you have a rather difficult baby. However, it appears that no one type of temperament is invariably good or bad. Rather, it depends on just how well the baby’s particular temperament fits in with their environment. To give a couple of examples, if a child has a low activity level and doesn’t get irritated easily, he may do well within an environment that allows them to explore on his own and pretty much direct their own behavior. On the other hand, if you have a highly active, fussy child that grows irritated easily, they may do better with increased direction from the parents, allowing the child to focus that energy into particular directions.

According to the studies done by Thomas and Chess, they found that difficult babies were more likely to show behavior problems by the time they reached school age (5-6 years of age), than those that were profiled as easy babies. However, not all difficult babies manifest problematic behavior. The deciding factor appears to be the way that the parents react to the infants challenging behavior. If they react negatively, showing anger and being inconsistent - which can be easy to do, if a child is really difficult – then the child is much more likely to experience problems with their behavior. However, if the parents show more love, patience, and consistency, the child will be more likely to avoid problems with behavior later on. (Studies done by: Belsky, Fish & Isabella, 1991; Teerikanges et al., 1998)

Another interesting thing to note is that different cultures view temperaments of children differently. For example, while one child here in the Western culture may be classified as difficult, they have an advantage within the East African Masai culture. The reason for this is that the mothers there only offer their breast for feeding when they fuss and cry, so, the more irritable and difficult an infant is, the more likely they are to be fed as opposed to more passive, easy infants. (deVries, 1984)

David Buss and Robert Plomin, in 1984, advanced a theory arguing that the temperamental characteristics represent inherited traits that are relatively stable throughout childhood and across the entire life span. These traits, they explain, make up the core of the personality, and play a substantial role in future development.

Reviewing the above facts, the responsibility of raising a child well can rest heavily on a parent’s shoulders. However, if you can identify your child’s temperament, and perhaps follow some of the advice written here or elsewhere, you will have a bit more peace of mind.

Next up: Attachment

Go back to Infant Development: Chapter 2


Lecture notes from my Developmental Psychology class taught by S. Harrison, 9-24-2002, Evergreen Valley College, San Jose, California.

Feldman, S. Robert. Development Across the Life Span (3rd Ed). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education.

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