Infant Temperaments May Reflect Parents’ Cultural Values


A new study examining temperamental differences between U.S. and Dutch babies found infants born in the Netherlands are more likely to be happy and easier to soothe in the latter half of their first year. U.S. infants, on the other hand, were typically more active and vocal, said study co-author Maria Gartstein, a Washington State University associate professor of psychology.

The study is published in the January 2015 print edition of the European Journal of Developmental Psychology.

U.S. parents often emphasize the importance of stimulation, exposing their children to a wide variety of new experiences to promote independence, a cultural ideal. Parents in Holland are more likely to incorporate children into daily activities at home, placing strong value on the importance of rest and regularity. A greater understanding of these values and the impact they have on an infant’s temperament will help psychologists fine-tune ways to prevent infant temperament issues from becoming behavioral problems later in life.

“The influence temperament has on developing behavioral problems likely varies from one country to another,” Gartstein said. “If we are aiming to prevent behavioral problems, which are a known precursor for more serious psychological problems, we need to know more about the values and expectations parents bring to the child-rearing table.”

Gartstein recruited 135 new families in the Pullman-Moscow (Idaho) area to take part in the U.S. portion of the study. Mothers used the Infant Behavioral Questionnaire to record the frequency of 191 different behaviors their children displayed at six and 12 months after birth. The researchers then used statistical analysis to rate babies along 14 different dimensions that ranged from cuddliness to vocal reactivity.

A cultural emphasis on cognitive stimulation may lead U.S. infants to be more active and aroused than their Dutch counterparts, the researchers suggest. American infants also demonstrated higher levels of fear, frustration and sadness and lower levels of falling reactivity (infants’ ability to lower their own distress/arousal).

“It was very interesting for me to go through the prep courses we offer for first-time moms in the United States,” Gartstein said. “The emphasis on cognitive stimulation—teaching moms how to use toys to interact with their baby, reading books aloud to infants, etc.—becomes really clear.”

In contrast, Dutch babies demonstrated greater expressions of happiness during routine activities and were easier to calm or soothe when upset. The researchers hypothesize the Dutch infants’ relatively calm demeanors were due in part to a more regulated sleep schedule and lower intensity activities.

“Two things that are very important to Dutch parents are reserving specific times for sleep and not over-stimulating their children,” Gartstein said. “For example, when the parents take the baby home from the hospital they often send out cards inviting friends to visit with the mom and baby at certain times so they won’t interrupt the baby’s sleep schedule. Also, I was struck by how little Dutch parents use toys when they play with their children, relative to U.S. parents.”

Gartstein said her hope is that cross-cultural developmental research will be expanded to include other countries and cultures from around the globe in an effort to better understand universal and culture-specific aspects of social-emotional development.

— Vimala McClure