The truth about why some babies are easier than others

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Did one of your children sleep like a dream and never fuss, and the other needed constant reassurance? This is the reason why.

We all know someone who has an ‘easy’ baby. Their child sleeps at the right times, is always happy, comfortable and adaptable in new surroundings, and generally enjoys their life. Others have babies who scream day and night, who don’t get along with other children, who are timid, withdrawn or anxious, and take much longer to feel settled in a new environment or with unfamiliar people.

We hear parents (and grandparents) blame each other, for ‘indulging’ one child or another, for ‘creating the monster’, and we ask, whose fault is it? What causes these variations in behaviour? Is it luck or are the babies responding to ‘good’ parenting techniques?

Nature or nurture? 

The nature versus nurture debate gets a good run when applied to parenting little humans. Is it a child’s inherent personality which informs their behaviour? Or is their response to the stressors of the world a result of their physical environment and parenting?

The answer is that babies are born with an innate behavioural style which can be seen from very early childhood before life experience begins to influence and shape their personalities.

From the moment my twins were born they were completely opposite in nature, interests and temperament, and they were both very different to my first child, so I certainly accept the assertion that a child is born with their own unique personality and temperament.

Despite being raised in exactly the same environment, from the womb to the school classroom, one of my twins is naturally sociable and adaptable and the other is more withdrawn and has more intense reactions to change, daily events and new experiences. One child skips off to school happily most mornings, desperate to meet up with friends and continue their games, the other begs for a day off, knowing it is likely that they will have no one to play with at lunchtime. One responds calmly and with acceptance when plans change unexpectedly, the other basically loses the plot and cannot cope.  

Temperament is the answer

Clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Barker says that this is perfectly normal and the differences in behavioural styles between the two are easily explained by the powerful role that nature plays in a child’s temperament.

The Australian Temperament Project, a longitudinal study conducted by psychologists over 30 years, looked at how temperament affects a child’s experience of the world and found that most children do not change radically over time. Children with ‘difficult’ infant characteristics do tend to have emotional and behavioural problems in early childhood and beyond.

Thankfully, the study also found that temperament can be modified as a result of experiences, positive or negative. Children who are offered positive relationships with adults in the home and in schools are more likely to overcome their innate issues with anxiety, and learn how to regulate their emotions and behaviours.

“We can think of temperament as being influenced by both nature and nurture, by both our biology and our experience, and it strongly affects the way we respond to others and life,” says Dr Barker.

You can’t change temperament, but you can help them adapt

A child’s temperament tends to be quite stable over their lifetime so, for parents, it is important to teach children skills, and help them develop strategies, to manage their responses. Kids need to learn how to react with “less emotional intensity if the intensity of their emotional responses is making it challenging for them to adapt happily to situations,” says Dr Barker.

Over time I have seen the importance of supporting each of my children in a way which is appropriate for their temperament. I’ve learnt that the way to help a child who thrives on the challenge of unfamiliar circumstances is to encourage their independence. The child who requires it, receives much more emotional assistance to handle a situation like starting in a new class or in a different sports team. This approach has made a huge difference to the anxious child’s experience of school life.

So, parenting styles are very important when it comes to helping children navigate the quirks of their innate personalities and temperament. Whether they are amiable, adaptive, ‘easy’ kids, or anxious, intense, ‘difficult’ kids, it is important for parents to remember that children don’t choose their temperaments. They are born with them. It is our job to help them respond to the world in the best possible way.