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Some babies are easy. And cry.
Coping with these babies can be an exhausting, emotionally wrenching ordeal. But research suggests a true bright side for sleepless, nerve-jangled parents. The same sensitivity that makes people difficult as babies can make them into lovely, academically-successful, socially-adept kids. If they get the right sort of parenting.
And that’s the key. Compared to easy babies, difficult babies are much more responsive to the effects of parenting. Warm, sensitive parenting—which includes an appreciation for a child’s need for independence--is good for everybody. But for difficult babies, good parenting is especially important.
In fact, with the right parenting, these babies actually have an advantage.
Because they are more influenced by their parents, they can turn out better-adjusted than their easygoing peers.
In one study, Anne Stright and her colleagues tracked over 1300 American children from birth to the first grade. At six months, some of the infants were identified as difficult. They were more active and more intensely emotional than other babies. They also cried a lot more and had more trouble adapting to change (like the arrival of a new babysitter).
What were these babies like in later years? It depended on parenting. If mothers were relatively insensitive, hostile, intrusive, or cold, the difficult babies became the kids with the biggest problems.
But if mothers were warm and sensitive, their babies tended to rise to the top of their class. In the first grade, their teachers rated them as more cooperative, assertive, self-controlled, and academically competent. Overall, they were better-adjusted than the kids with an “easy” past.
Follow-up research on the same children has yielded similar results. At 11 years, the best-adjusted kids were the formerly difficult babies who had received excellent parenting.
So difficult babies may be more work. But that work can pay off in a big way.
Why has mother nature created these super-sensitive babies? Psychologist Jay Belsky takes an evolutionary view. Babies who are relatively easy-going are like conservative investments. They turn out well under a variety of conditions, including times of stress (like famine, war, or poverty). But because they are less sensitive to the environment, they don't adapt as well to really fabulous conditions (like peace, stability, and affluence).
So our ancestors "hedged" their bets by producing some babies that were super-sensitive. These babies had more trouble coping with stressful situations. But when families experienced good times, the super-sensitive kids could take maximal advantage. If you're interested in these theoretical musings, check out Belsky's academic writings, including his book The Nature (and Nurture?) of Plasticity in Early Human Development.
Got a difficult, colicky baby? Then you should visit my research-based web resource, "Infant crying, fussing, and colic: An anthropological perspective on the role of parenting." And for more information about the effects of sensitive, responsive parenting, check out the articles "Mind-minded parenting" and "The authoritative parenting style."
image by Semacc
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.