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More than just "difficult"? Results from my research on temperament, parenting, and sleep.

If you look at the research on temperament, it seems to be full of bad news. The original categories of temperament (created by researchers Thomas and Chess) divide most children into three categories: Easy, Difficult, and Slow to Warm Up.


Wow. Harsh.


“Difficult” children were those who were fussier and had more problems with both self-soothing and sleep. “Slow to Warm Up” were the more cautious children whom we used to call “shy.”


When you look at the research, “difficult” temperaments are related to all kinds of gnarly outcomes: depression, more stressed parenting, behavioral issues, etc. This is still the main focus and finding of research on temperament today. As a parent of a couple of children who would be considered temperamentally “difficult,” I knew that there was more to it. Parents also generally know that their child is so much more than just “difficult.” We know that these children can also be incredibly verbal and bright, highly empathetic, super creative, perceptive, deeply feeling. However, researchers weren’t looking for the “upsides” or other qualities that could go with the difficult stuff. (I mean, they weren’t looking at all.)


So, I set out to ask this question: what else is in that temperament package that might be overlooked? Are there silver linings that are a package deal with the harder parts? I think the results will not surprise you.


In my survey, I recruited a large group of parents with children across the whole spectrum of temperament. I recruited parents of infants (6-18 months) and children (2-6 yrs) and asked them questions about their child’s temperament, development, birth, and sleep patterns. I received 850 completed surveys.


I then was able to statistically test how much a more “difficult” temperament influenced lots of outcomes. I wanted to see what else was in that box of what researchers would consider "difficult."


Here's what I found...


Infants and children with higher scores of temperamental “difficulty” were...

  • A little more likely to have had a difficult labor and/or birth

  • More likely to have had colic, reflux, food intolerance, snoring/apnea, or ear infections and they had a higher number of these problems than mellower children.

  • More likely to have nurses in the maternity ward comment on the strength of the baby’s crying

Besides being a little harder to soothe and “fussier,” these children...

  • Had bigger startle reactions

  • Were more sensitive to textures, sounds

  • Were more reactive to things like noisy or busy places

  • Had a more difficult time with transitions

  • Had more difficult time with “surprises” (unexpected changes in routine)

HOWEVER...

  • They also scored higher on positive attributes like

  • perceptiveness

  • engagement/interaction

  • persistence, and

  • emotional perceptiveness/sensitivity


Here’s what I found out when I asked parents about temperament and sleep.


Alert/sensitive children had a significantly more difficult time on all measures of sleep:

  • Harder-to-read sleepy signals

  • More difficulty falling asleep

  • More nightwaking

  • Less napping and more effort to get them to nap

  • More effort to get them to sleep at bedtime and middle-of-the-night

Parents of alert children reported significantly more struggle with:

  • Nightwaking

  • Bedtime crying/resistance

  • Short naps

  • Getting the child to sleep in their crib/bed

  • Early rising

  • Sleeping independently

Parents also reported a significantly higher number of these struggles than parents of mellower children.


Parents of alert/sensitive children were more likely to report attempting sleep training and they reported trying a greater number of techniques with less success.


Parents of more "difficult" (intense, alert, sensitive) children were significantly more exhausted...and they also reported significantly lower levels of competence than parents of mellower children.


Research takeaways: Children who would be considered “difficult” by current research standards also showed higher levels of positive qualities. Parents know this. They will report that while their livewire can be a handful, they are also spectacularly empathic, creative, social/verbal, precocious, hilarious little beings.


These qualities unfortunately come with a cost and it appears that one of those is sleep. The higher the level of temperamental intensity, the higher the difficulty with sleep. It also appears that these difficulties with sleep are not for lack of trying. Parents of livewires reported trying many strategies that just did not work.


It's also important to note that parents of more intense children suffer higher levels of exhaustion and lower levels of self-efficacy. This research really highlights the needs that parents have for a broader view of a “difficult” temperament, so that they can have more support for this unique parenting niche. For them, the “light at the end of the tunnel” may be far off and hard to see from where they are right now.


See the research poster on "upsides of a difficult temperament" here.

See the research poster on temperament and sleep here.


Macall Gordon, M.A. has a B.S. from Stanford in Human Biology and an M.A. from Antioch University, Seattle in Applied Psychology, where she is currently a Sr. Lecturer. She researches and writes about temperament, sleep, and the gap between research and advice. She is also a certified pediatric sleep consultant working with parents of alert, non-sleeping children. She comes to this work because she had two sensitive, intense children and she didn’t sleep for 18 years.
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