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Temperament may be the reason your child can't sleep

Spunky young girl with goggles

Most of the popular advice on sleep will tell you that the difference between children who are “good sleepers” and those who aren’t is what their parents are or aren’t doing at bedtime. I disagree. I am going to go way out on a limb and make a big claim:

The line between children who sleep well—and those who don’t— is temperament.

How does temperament affect sleep, you ask? Let’s just say, “How doesn’t it affect sleep?”

Let’s first think about what it takes to fall asleep:

1) you notice that you feel tired/sleepy;

2) you are willing to disconnect from the waking world;

3) you can give in to the need to sleep and you go to sleep.

Certain aspects of temperament affect all three of these. Temperament refers to the way an individual processes and reacts to incoming events and stimuli. Children with a different temperament are often referred to as "alert" "fussy" or "neurodivergent". A majority of children are able to buffer out an awful lot. For these kiddos, going to sleep isn’t that hard. They feel sleepy, they yawn, and with some encouragement and a little nudging behaviorally, they can learn to fall asleep without a ton of drama.

A subset of children (I call them livewires) has circuits that are more open to outside input and they react to that input more strongly. They also tend to crave engagement and interaction. While these are the foundations of some amazing abilities, they also completely tank the ability to power down, disconnect, and get some sleep. They don’t notice that they’re sleepy. They don’t want to disconnect from the waking world, and they are like The Princess and the Pea when it comes to being able to buffer out whatever could keep them awake.

For livewires, every aspect of sleep is just much more challenging.

Sleep training books don’t consider temperament and "alert" babies

Most sleep advice was written for children who are not livewires. For these kiddos, altering their sleep behavior may not be fun…but it tends to work without too much hoopla. For livewires, this is never the case. For these kiddos, sleep training is not a few nights of “fussing,” but can be hours of sweaty hysterics that never culminate in sleep. Nope. Doesn’t happen.

Dear, tuckered out parents: It’s not you. It’s temperament.

Here are five big temperament traits that affect both sleep and your efforts to improve it:

"Big feelings" (Intensity)

For livewires, everything is bigger. If they’re happy, they’re really happy. Once they get upset, watch out. Some parents of livewires may not have ever attempted sleep training because they know the blowback that will result.

"Zero to sixty" (Reactivity)

“If I don’t get to her immediately, she’s hysterical (throwing up) and it takes an hour to get her calmed back down.” Livewires react strongly and they react fast. This is another reason why typical approaches to sleep training where parents delay their response don’t work for livewires the same way. Once they are fully upset, their level of intensity exceeds what they’re able to manage on their own. If I gave you a five-pound weight and asked you to hold it for five minutes, you could probably do it. If I gave you fifty pounds, it’s less likely that you could hold it without help before dropping it. This is a livewire in a nutshell. Because they react so strongly and so quickly, they blow right past their limit.

Alert baby looking surprised

“The minute I lay him down, his eyes pop open and we have to start over” (Sensory sensitive)

Sensory sensitivity is perhaps the biggest contributor to difficulties with sleep. Any little thing keeps them awake. These are the babies that need to be endlessly bounced or nursed all the way to dead-to-the-world. Creaky floors, closing doors, breathing….all could wake the baby.

“Never gives up...will totally outlast me” (Persistent)

“Easy going” and “flexible” are not words used to describe livewires. Livewires know what they want, and they are willing to outlast you to get it. This is an amazing trait for an adolescent or adult to have, but in children, it can be exhausting. Parents know that even at a young age, livewires can and will outlast you. So, when the books say that the first night of sleep training “could be bad” and they mean 30-45 minutes of crying and you are on hour two, it’s easy to wonder what you’re doing wrong. It’s not you. Books are not written about livewires.

“Serious FOMO” (Engaged/Alert)

I’ve heard parents of two-month-old babies say, “She just doesn’t want to sleep. It’s like she’s afraid she’ll miss something.” Livewires crave input and interaction. They want to be in the world. For them, sleep is a waste of time. “Sleepy signals” are a sign of weakness. Getting them to power down and be ready for sleep can be a project.

“My child absolutely can't sleep...and hasn't since birth” (All of the above)

The hard truth is that all of that energy and curiosity and sensitivity conspire to really do a number on the willingness and ability to sleep. It also means that they do not quickly get on board with a new plan. Sleep training with these big-feeling little ones is not usually a walk in the park. There are workarounds, to be sure. Just don't expect that those packaged sleep training programs are going to work the way they say they do. They might (but probably not).

If you have a livewire, your child has some powerful abilities: passion, perceptiveness, sensitivity, engagement. Livewires ask more of their parents and parents are willing to level up. When it comes to sleep training, however, parents of livewires are left a little out in the cold. Advice does not take temperament into account and so, livewire parents are trying to use information that’s not really applicable to their child. It’s like trying to use a manual for the wrong software. It’s not going to work very well. Understanding a child’s underlying temperament—both strengths and challenges—can help you at least feel confident that the trouble with sleep isn’t because you are doing it wrong; it’s because they are a livewire.

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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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