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Temperament and the role it plays in how your baby sleeps!

Temperament is the way in which we approach and react to the environment around us. Learning about your child’s temperament can help you to better understand their behaviour and lead to more responsive care. It can take time to get to know their individual temperament, and how this influences the way they react to change or how they sleep.

An influential study carried out by Thomas and Chess in 1977 identified nine temperamental traits that can be commonly identified in children.

  1. Activity level: Amount of physical movement

  2. Biological rhythms: Regularity of eating, sleeping, elimination

  3. Approach/withdrawal: Comfort in new situations

  4. Mood: Amount of time in pleasant, cheerful mood as opposed to fussing, crying, or resisting others

  5. Intensity of reaction: Energy level of emotional expressions

  6. Sensitivity: Response to sensory information, including light, sounds, textures, smells, tastes

  7. Adaptability: Ability to manage changes in routine or recover from being upset

  8. Distractability: How easily the child’s attention is distracted

  9. Persistence: How long a child will stay with a difficult activity before giving up

Children will show certain behaviours for each trait, some children may be extremely active and need to constantly be on the move, whereas others may observe environments and pause before engaging in activities.

These nine temperament traits were grouped together to form temperament types. There are three main temperament types; you may have heard them be referred to as easy-going, slow-to-warm, and highly sensitive/active.

What does this mean?

Easy-going children tend to have a positive mood and naturally have more regular feed and sleeping habits. They will adjust easily to new situations and environments. Most easy babies will nap well on the go and may respond relatively quickly to any sleep changes. They may not be so heavily impacted by developmental regressions or will go back to normal relatedly quickly.

Slow-to-warm children are more likely to be cautious in new environments and have lower activity levels, due to this they may find sleeping in unfamiliar spaces harder. They are generally observant, calm and may need extra time in adjusting to new situations, however they tend to have less intense reactions. When you make changes to their sleep habits, they may need extra time to adjust as they like to go at their own pace. For toddlers that are slow to warm, try to carefully talk them through any changes to their routine. Slow to warm children cope well with a consistent daytime and bedtime routine.

Children with sensitive temperaments may be fussy, active and have more intense negative or positive reactions to situations. They may also withdraw in new situations. Highly sensitive children may find the transition from awake to sleep time difficult and may struggle more during seasons of separation anxiety. They may be cranky babies and when they wake in the middle of the night, can have trouble falling back to sleep. These babies may go from 0-100 very quickly, and often have varied routines with sleep and eating.

Research shows roughly 40% of babies have an easy temperament, 10% are highly sensitive and 15% are slow to warm. Then around 30% of children do not fall specifically into any of these three types and may have characteristics of all the above.

How can you support your little one’s sleep?

  • Therefore, if your child is highly sensitive, they may need a calmer wind down before bed, with lots of warnings that sleep is coming. They may take longer to fall asleep and need more parental support to settle for the night. If you’re wanting to move towards independent settling, you may need to do this very slowly and at a pace that works for both them and you. They may also need lots of cuddles or 1:1 connection time before bed.

  • Whereas, if you have a relatively easy-going baby or toddler, they are likely to adapt to any changes quickly. They will fall into a new routine within a few days and tend to cope well with giving them space to settle themselves independently. They may also nap well on the go or at home.

  • If your little one is slow to warm, they may have less of an intense reaction when you make changes to sleep. However, you may still need to go at a pace that suits them. You may need to layer in lots of new sleep associations before you move away from a primary one. Example: if you’re always feeding or rocking to sleep, try adding in a pat/shush/hum before slowly moving away from the other associations.

There is no such thing as a good or bad temperament. We are all unique and adapt to changes and react to the world in slightly different ways. Learning about your child’s temperament can make it easier to navigate sleep changes and know how to best meet their needs.

If you need help navigating changes with your little ones sleep, reach out for support.

Thomas, A., & Chess, S. (1977). Temperament and development. New York: Bruner/Mazel.

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