Aug 18, 2011 by Martha Burns, Ph.D

Infant temperament

What factors will ultimately determine a child’s ability to succeed in life? While measures like socioeconomic status might allow a child to start off on the right foot, current research is delving into the nature of temperament and how that affects a person’s ability to successfully navigate life’s many challenges.   If temperament is pre-determined, there’s not much a parent can do, but if nurture plays a role, then how can parents help their child have the best quality of life?

While temperament has long been thought of as something innate, recent research has demonstrated that only some aspects are genetic, while others are environmental.

On the genetic side, as any parent will agree, much of an individual’s personality manifests very early on in the infant’s life. Parents with more than one child often note that one of their children seems easygoing from day one, but another child is demanding. One child may be outgoing and social, while their sibling may be more shy or withdrawn.

As we consider how these seemingly innate traits develop, we cannot ignore the fact that the environment – from parental attention to nutrition – exerts a strong influence on a child’s personality development. Current research tells us that a pregnant mother’s iron levels can affect the disposition of her child. Emerging data gleaned from animal research indicates that the quality of maternal parenting styles, such as the way a mother nurses her infants or the amount of maternal grooming, affects the temperament of her offspring.

An interesting question arises: How do these early manifestations play out as the child matures? For example, will an infant who is able to self-calm herself in stressful situations by turning away from aversive stimuli or sucking her thumb, for example, continue to exhibit self-regulatory behaviors as she gets older?

Considering the interplay between innate versus cultivated aspects of temperament, what actions can a parent take to affect the development of a child’s personality to give that child the best chance at personal satisfaction, academic achievement and successful relationships later in life? As the above research – and our own parental gut instincts – suggest, we can set them up by providing:

  • Excellent nutrition
  • Logical, predictable rules for living with others
  • Optimal environments and schedules for sleep
  • Lots of interactive play with family and friends
  • Less screen time
  • Lots and lots of parental love and affection


With parents providing these positive factors for their children, every child – from shy to outgoing, from tense to easygoing – will have the best chance at developing a balanced temperament as they mature.

For further study, read: Child Temperament and Parenting, by Samuel Putnam (University of Oregon), Ann Sanson (University of Melbourne), Mary Rothbart (University of Oregon). 


Feder, A; Nestler, EJ; Charney, DS.  Psychobiology and molecular genetics of resilienceNature Reviews  Neuroscience 10 (2009) 446 – 457

Related Reading:

Building a Foundation for School Readiness for Low Income Children

The Magical Combination of Love and Limits: Tips for Teaching Positive Behavior