You may not know what to call it —fussy? high needs? highly
sensitive? spirited? a dragon? a “handful”? But if you have one,
you know it. While temperament is easier to observe and assess
once children are verbal, the signs can be seen in infancy…
often from birth.


The majority of temperament research continues to focus on the behaviors that cause difficulty for parents. However, a variety of parenting authors have focused on certain traits or they have used terms that are not quite as negatively loaded as “difficult.” Highly Sensitive Children, as conceptualized by Elaine Aron, refers to children who have a high degree of sensory sensitivity and are easily overwhelmed. Dr. William Sears coined the phrase High Needs to describe babies who are intense, high-touch, non-sleepers. In her 1989 book, Mary Sheedy Kurckinka coined the term “spirited” to refer to children who are “more” intense, sensitive, active, persistent, and perceptive.

So, what is it?

Temperament refers to hard-wired systems for taking in and processing the environment. Biologists suggest that a subset of children are just wired to be more sensitive and reactive to what happens.

Temperament researchers Thomas and Chess (1977) have identified several areas where differences in temperament show up:

  • Activity Level How busy, moving, on the go (physically or mentally​) are they?

  • Alertness/Perceptiveness – How much do they seem to notice? How visually alert are they?

  • Regularity/Rhythmicity – Do they have predictable patterns of eating or sleeping. Every day is different

  • Persistence/Distractability – How hard do they fight for something they want? Can they be distracted from it?

  • Sensitivity – Do they react to certain sensory inputs like texture, temperature, sound, movement? Do they seem emotionally sensitive, picking up on others’ moods?

  • Intensity – How big and rapid are their reactions, positive or negative? How easy is it to calm them down?

  • Adaptability – Do they have difficulty with transitions like those between awake/asleep, playing/eating, leaving the house. How well do they deal with frustration or interruption?

  • Approach – Are they very outgoing and social (extroverted) or more cautious, needing time to warm up (introverted)? "Highly sensitive" individuals, though potentially more introverted, can still be considered spirited. They may have differences in how they experience and express intensity or other traits.


What parents will say…

Parents of these little firecrackers tend to report surprisingly similar traits that aren’t on the list.

  • Bouncers, not rockers. Spirited babies seem to need a lot of vigorous input to calm down (like the bouncing instead of rocking). Virtually all of my sleep coaching clients with intense babies reported using a yoga ball instead of a rocking chair for soothing their baby.

  • Total non-sleepers. Intense/sensitive children seem allergic to long bouts of sleep. Parents report that their baby is “a FOMO Baby. It’s like if he goes to sleep, he’s afraid he’ll miss something.”

  • Early alertness. Parents also report that their baby lacked that fuzzy newborn gaze, but instead that their baby’s “eyes were wide open, staring like laser beams. Even the nurses noticed it.”

  • “On” until they’re “off.” There’s no “drowsy” stage for these babies. They seem to be wide awake until they’re finally asleep and then their eyes “pop open” and they’re awake again.

Does this sound like your child? (Does this sound like you?) Rate your child (and then yourself) on the Temperament Quiz here. 

Is my child Alert/Sensitive/intense?...

Am I???

childhood and people concept - overwhelm

© 2020 by Macall Gordon, M.A.