More Evidence that "Difficult" Babies are Most Influenced by Parents

I've written several times on this blog about children's temperaments and how they may or may not affect a child later in life. Based on the research that is coming out on this topic, it is becoming more and more clear that how a child's temperament influences his/her later behavior has a lot to do with the quality of the parental relationship. A recent study from the University of Maryland further reiterates this idea:

-- Researchers followed 84 infants from birth to age 2

-- Babies were rates on their level of irritability. This was based on how they reacted to stimuli such as hearing a bell ringing or being undressed

-- At 1 year of age, the attachment style of the babies was measured using the classic attachment rating process. 

-- At 18-24 months of age, the children were brought to the laboratory to see how they reacted to an unfamiliar environment

-- Results shows that toddlers who were more irritable as infants were more likely to be sociable and interact well with the new environment if they have a secure attachment to their mothers

-- By contrast, toddlers who were more irritable as infants were less likely to be sociable if they had an insecure attachment to their mothers

-- Interestingly, for toddlers who were only moderately irritable as infants, the quality of attachment with their mothers had little influence on their sociability or willingness to engage with the new environment

So basically what this study tells us is that children who are highly irritable or "difficult" as infants are more vulnerable to the role of parental influence. If parents are responsive to them they have as much (or perhaps greater) likelihood to grow into sociable, engaged toddlers. However, these "difficult" babies are also more vulnerable to a lack of parent responsiveness and if this need is not met they are also more likely to be withdrawn or less sociable as toddlers.

More Evidence that "Difficult" Babies are Most Influenced by Parents
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This topic is so important because often times I think parents consider their child's temperament as something permanent or something that they have little influence over. Based on the research that's coming out, it's looking like temperament is more like a moderating factor, that in some ways may affect how susceptible a child is to the outside environment, including parenting actions.

baby difficult temperament

I think a lot about this topic because I worry about all the babies out there who are considered "difficult" or have an irritable temperament. They often put more of a strain on parents--they require hours of holding, rocking, and soothing and as a parent, you may wonder if you can keep it up. I worry that many parents or caregivers will simply think the child has a "bad" temperament and not see the positive characteristics the baby or child has to offer.

After reading the research, I have begun to see babies labeled as having a "difficult" temperament as having great promise for being outgoing, social children. These babies seem to be the most sensitive to parents' behavior and reactions, even more so than "easy" babies.

Thus, while these babies may require more effort and attention, the amount of influence parents and caregivers have on these babies is also greater. There is something lovely in thinking about an irritable/fussy baby who turns into an outgoing, sociable toddler and this can be in large part due to attentive, responsive parents.

Want to learn more about temperament and how it influences your parenting? Get your e-book, Understanding Your Child's Temperament

So if you are a parent of an irritable infant, take heart! All the effort you are putting forth for your child really is worth it (as if you had any doubt). In a year or so, you may begin to see an adventurous, engaging toddler emerge in your midst.

Related Resources:

Stupica B, Sherman LJ, & Cassidy J (2011). Newborn irritability moderates the association between infant attachment security and toddler exploration and sociability. Child development, 82 (5), 1381-9 PMID: 21883159


Master Blogger said...

It is really our duty as a parent to make our child grow as a good individual, this post is great!

Zero Dramas

Stacey Keller Thompson said...

Thanks for this! I have 9 children, many of whom I would have labeled as "difficult" babies/ toddlers. It was tons of exhausting work 24/7, especially since my husband was very busy and gone a lot. But I tried to stay positive and engaged. Now that the oldest is 19, it is so gratifying to see all of them as happy, social kids. Some of them still struggle with boundaries, etc. but they are not shy or afraid. I believe this research. :)

Sue Balding said...

All children are definitely influenced by the parent's way of being. Upset, aggravated, angry; all emotions are a direct link to our children who have sensitive input valves. Counting to 10 (as in my book, "Moms Who Hate to Say NO!") is a remedy for dialing down our emotions when communicating with our children - at any age. Think how words and vibes effect us as adults. Why would newborns be any different? In fact all they have at first is their new awareness of environment, touching, feeling, seeing, smelling, hearing. If you can't get control - sing. If you can't sing - hummm! Soft, voices are a true effect on infants. Just like rocking, stroking lovingly (no matter how loud the cry) can have an affect. Some characteristics in personality we do come here with. Some are in the genes, some are learned behaviors. What would you like to teach them? How would you like to have an influence on your child?

momto8 said...

I think me and my first child particiapted in this study 23 years ago from NIH! She was the easist baby in the world and we of course thought it was b/c we were the best parents in the world. ha! litle did we know....

NewMama said...

Interesting study & post. I think what usually happens is that parents of difficult baby think that they need to train the baby to be "easier" by not responding to their crying. Or if they respond to the crying immediately, it seems as though they're being "trained" by the baby, and not the other way around.

Dana Banat said...

I am now struggling with a 'difficult' baby, she is almost 5 months and still a lot of work! I hope it gets better in the coming 5 months, as i have hope that she will become easier when she can crawl and sit!

Amy Webb, PhD said...

Hang in there Dana! Both of mine were difficult in their own way, but it does get easier. I've heard from other moms that "difficulty" when there little often is a sign of intelligence :) I don't know if any research backs that up but it's a nice thought.

Totschooling said...

You are totally right about this. My middle child was a very difficult baby and I had to basically hold her 24/7. Now, at 3 years old, she's the most social and outgoing of all my children and is the easiest to parent. Great article!

Simi said...

I have an 8 month old baby, she is my first and i do not want anymore children as I have found being a mum the hardest thing ever, she is a difficult baby and has been since she was 2 months old, I feel like a massive failure, she needs alot of attention, is a fussy eater, sleeper. I feel like this phase im going through will never end, I feel like i wasnt made to be a mum and it makes me feel guilty and i feel so sorry for my daughter, I can only hope things get easier, but its not how i imagined it would be, sometimes i want to get out of the house but it takes forever just to get out of the door and my daughter just cries, its like a battle getting her ready, feeding and changing, she just wants my constant attention and shes been ill for the past few weeks with a cold and its made her more unsettled, anyway i should stop writing because im making myself cry.

Amy Webb, PhD said...

I just want to encourage you that you are doing the best job as a mother. Some babies are temperamentally more demanding, but that doesn't mean you are doing anything wrong or that there is anything wrong with your daughter. Like this article suggests, some babies are more sensitive to their surrounds and cry more. This also means that they are more sensitive to your loving parenting. Just keep loving her and being a sensitive responsive parent and she will most likely settle some over time. Also be sure to take some time for yourself if you can. I have found that a few minutes by myself or some time exercising can help relieve the stress. Hang in there!