Baby Temperament – Easy Baby vs Difficult Baby

Baby Temperament – Easy Baby vs Difficult Baby

Baby Temperament – Easy Baby vs Difficult Baby

All parents wish they had an easy baby. I can relate. Parents who have difficult babies often envy those who have easy ones. But research shows that having a difficult child is actually not a bad thing.

Child Temperament

What Is Child Temperament?

As parents of multiple children already know, each child is different even when they have been born and raised in the same home. Right from the beginning, infants already show distinct styles of responding to the environment. Each of them has their individual temperaments.

Temperament is defined as the early-appearing variation in reaction and emotional reactivity. It is a result of biological and environmental factors working together throughout development since conception rather than based entirely on genetics.

There are different categorizations of temperament by different researchers. The most influential research is conducted by doctors and psychologists, Chess and Thomas. This well-known New York Longitudinal Study lasted for several decades (1956-1988) and found 9 temperament traits that can be commonly identified in young children.

9 Temperament Traits

1. Activity

The level and extent of motor activity.

2. Regularity

The rhythmicity, or degree of regularity, of functions such as eating, elimination and the cycle of sleeping and wakefulness.

3. Initial Reaction

The response to a new object or person, in terms of whether the child approaches the new experience or withdraws from it.

4. Adaptability

The adaptability of behavior to changes in the environment.

5. Sensitivity

The threshold, or sensitivity, to stimuli.

6. Intensity

The intensity, or energy level, of responses.

7. Mood

The child’s general mood or “disposition”, whether cheerful or given to crying, pleasant or cranky, friendly or unfriendly.

8. Distractibility

The degree of the child’s distractibility from what he is doing.

9. Attention span and persistence

The span of the child’s attention and his persistence in an activity.

Easy Baby vs Difficult Baby

Among the nine temperament traits, researchers found that six of them tend to cluster together – activity, regularity, initial reaction, adaptability, intensity and mood.

In general, easy babies are characterized by their regular bodily functions, positive approach to new situations, adaptability, positive mood and non-intense reaction to stimuli. Raising these children are relatively easy because they respond favorably to various child-raising styles. They readily adapt to different parental handling.

On the other hand, difficult babies are characterized by their irregular bodily functions, withdrawal from new situations, slow adaptability, negative mood and intense reaction. Raising these children are difficult from the get-go.

The slow to warm babies are characterized by low activity level and low intensity of reaction although they also have tendency to withdraw from new situations, slow adaptability and somewhat negative in mood. These children can adapt to new situations if they’re allowed to do that at their own pace. However, if pressured to do so, these children may fall back to their natural tendency to withdraw.

Temperament Traits Easy Slow-to-warm Difficult
Regularity Regular N/A Irregular
Initial reaction Approach Withdraw Withdraw
Adaptability Fast Slow Slow
Intensity Non-intense Low Intense
Mood Positive Slight negative Negative
Activity N/A Low N/A

Child temperament distribution

Roughly 40% of babies has easy temperament, 10% difficult and 15% slow to warm. 30% of children do not fall into any of the three identified types.

But this is by no means the definition of being “difficult”. Parents know when they have difficult babies. These are babies who cry a lot. They cry loudly and they are hard to soothe. It is hard to get them to fall asleep and stay asleep. When they wake up in the middle of the night, they have trouble going back to sleep. These difficult babies are also called colic, spirited, or high-needs babies.

Is Easy Temperament Better Than Difficult Temperament?

If you have an easy baby, congratulations! You probably have more sleep than many other parents. We envy you!

But if you have a difficult one, you have more work cut out for you. 

Caring for a difficult baby is exhausting and worrisome. The most worrisome aspect is perhaps the fact that difficult baby temperament is associated with more behavioral problems and emotional disorders later in life.

However, do not despair if you have a difficult baby. There is actually good news for you.

Studies have shown that differential susceptibility plays a big role in a child’s outcome. That means temperament by itself does not determine how a child will turn out because of its cross-over interaction with the environment.

Infants with a difficult temperament are disproportionately affected by parenting. They react more (more susceptible or more sensitive) to the quality of parenting than easy children, for better and for worse.

When raised with good parenting, a difficult child tend to do better in cognitive, academic and social adjustment than their easy counterparts. On the other hand, when the parenting is bad, a difficult baby will fare worse when they grow up.

So you should be thrilled if you have a difficult or sensitive baby. Your difficult child actually has a better chance to succeed, if you do your part in providing good parenting. 

Child Temperament And Parenting Style

In studies on differential susceptibility, parenting quality is defined as good when the mother shows high level of emotional and autonomy support. Bad parenting is when the mother shows low level of emotional and autonomy support.

This definition is similar to one of the criteria used to categorize the four Baumrind’s parenting styles. Among the four styles, authoritative parenting, which provides high emotional and autonomy support, is the best according to numerous studies. It comes as no surprise that such parenting style also provides the most positive impact on difficult children.

And because of this differential susceptibility property, it is even more important for parents of difficult babies to adopt an authoritative parenting style.

“Tough love” is simply not the answer to raising children with a difficult temperament. It will only make things worse, according to research.

However, the relationship and influence between temperament and parenting are bidirectional. Difficult temperaments tend to elicit tough response and inconsistent discipline from parents.

When a baby cries incessantly, you may have the urge to shout at them to stop. It is also natural that when your difficult child yells at you, you want to yell back. It is understandable.

But as we now know, tough response will only make things worse. Instead, parents should remain calm, responsive and sensitive. It may take a long time to get through to your child and the process may be painstaking, but the reward will be tremendous.



  • Temperament and Its Role in Developmental Psychopathology. By David C. Rettew, MD and Laura McKee, M
  • What Is Temperament Now? Assessing Progress in Temperament Research on the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Goldsmith et al. (1987). By Rebecca L. Shiner, Kristin A. Buss, Sandee G. McClowry, Samuel P. Putnam, Kimberly J. Saudino, and Marcel Zentner
  • Behavioral Genetics and Child Temperament. By Kimberly J. Saudino, Ph.D.
  • Common emotional and behavioral disorders in preschool children: presentation, nosology, and epidemiolog. By Helen Link Egger and Adrian Angold
  • Temperament: Theory and Practice by S. Chess and A. Thomas
  • Behavior Problems in Preschool Children: A Review of Recent Research. By Susan B. Campbell
  • Goodness-of-fit in center day care: relations of temperament, stability, and quality of care with the child’s adjustment. By J.Clasien De Schipper, Louis W.C Tavecchio, , Marinus H Van IJzendoorn, Jantien Van Zeijl
  • Differential Susceptibility to Parenting and Quality Child Care. By Michael Pluess and Jay Belsky
  • Nature and Nurturing: Parenting in the Context of Child Temperament. By Cara J. Kiff, Liliana J. Lengua, and Maureen Zalewski
  • Infant Temperament Moderates Relations Between Maternal Parenting in Early Childhood and Children’s Adjustment in First Grade. By Anne Dopkins Stright, Kathleen Cranley Gallagher, Ken Kelley
  • Bidirectional associations between temperament and parenting and the prediction of adjustment problems in middle childhood. By Liliana J. Lengua, Erica A. Kovacs


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