— 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are also more vulnerable to a lack of parent responsiveness and if this need is not met they are also more likely to be withdrawn or less sociable as toddlers.
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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.
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.
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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.
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