Bowdoin’s Putnam Finds Dutch, Finnish Babies Smile, Cuddle More than US Babies

Brunswick, Maine - Bowdoin College; Sam Putnam, photographed October, 2006 © James Marshall 2006

Sam Putnam, professor of psychology

A baby from the Netherlands or Finland smiles, laughs and cuddles more than an infant growing up in the United States, according to a study by Bowdoin Professor of Psychology Sam Putnam and his colleagues. Plus, they are more easily soothed.

U.S. babies, on the other hand, are more active and vocal, although they also display more fear, frustration and sadness than Dutch and Finnish infants.

Putnam has for the past eight years been collecting data from different countries on infant temperaments. In two recently published studies, he and his collaborators explore some of the differences they’ve discovered specifically between babies in the Netherlands and Finland and those in the United States.

These differences likely reflect the cultural values parents bring to child rearing, the researchers suggest. “U.S. parents often emphasize the importance of stimulation, seeking a wide variety of experiences for their children to promote cultural ideals regarding independence,” Putnam and his co-authors write in the article, “Exploring temperamental differences in infants from the USA and the Netherlands,” published in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology. “In contrast, parents in Holland are more likely to incorporate children into daily activities in familiar settings, placing strong value on the importance of rest and regularity.”

The varying emphasis parents place on sleep and stimulation may lead to more active and aroused infants in the United States and calmer infants in the Netherlands and Finland. “Previous studies suggest that babies get up to two hours more sleep per day in the Netherlands than in the U.S.,” Putnam said.

Student collaborators
Two Bowdoin students have assisted Putnam in the cross-cultural infant temperament project. Larissa Gaias ’11, currently a graduate student in Family Studies and Human Development at Arizona State University, collaborated on the Finnish/U.S. study, “Cross-cultural temperamental differences in infants, children and adults in the United States of America and Finland,” published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. Jimin Sung ’13 assisted with the Dutch/U.S. paper.

The research seems to indicate that parents are raising their children to fit in and thrive in their own culture. In the United States, parents are apt to praise a child’s intelligence or alertness, while in the Netherlands, parents like to point out a child’s agreeableness. “We focus on children being advanced, smart and alert,” Putnam said. “Whereas people in other countries might say, ‘Oh, [the baby] is very happy, or he is very easygoing.’ We don’t say those things as often.”

Putnam says what makes these findings about babies especially exciting is that they correlate with published studies on the temperaments of adults. “There are previous studies that look at adult personalities, how they rated themselves or their best friend, and to a strong degree our results on what parents say about their babies are relatively consistent with adult personalities,” he said.

Countries, such as in the United States, that have babies more frequently described as sensation seeking, active and vocal also have more adults who describe themselves as extroverted. In the Netherlands, and elsewhere in northern Europe, where babies have less stimulation, the tendency of adults to be calm and stay under control is very high. “They don’t seem to be as sensation seeking…as people from the United States,” Putnam said, of his own impressions of the Dutch. “They seem more content.”

Putnam and his main collaborator, Maria Gartstein of Washington State University, collect their cross-cultural data using the Infant Behavioral Questionnaire and Early Childhood Behavior Questionnaire, which they developed along with Mary Rothbart of the University of Oregon, who was their postdoctoral advisor. These questionnaires have been translated into over 40 languages by researchers around the world.

Mothers and fathers complete the measures under the guidance of foreign researchers who are collaborating with Putnam and Gartstein. Participants answer questions such as: when your baby is approached by a stranger, how often do they cry? Or, when your child is given a new toy they wanted, how often do they smile and laugh?

With all the temperament data coming in from around the world, Putnam and Gartstein have recently put together a meta-analysis, which they’ve submitted to the Journal of Research in Personality. In this analysis, they interpret their results and those of other psychology studies from 18 countries: Denmark, Chile, Israel, Finland, Netherlands, United States, Suriname, Poland, German, Italy, Korea, Taiwan, Italy, Russia, Belgium, Curacao, Japan and China.​

Putnam stresses that these cross-cultural investigations are not meant to highlight some findings as desirable and others as detrimental. “We don’t put value statements on this,” he explained. “All of these traits are associated with good and bad outcomes.” For instance, while most of us want to be regulated and be able to get our work done, staying in on Friday night to study or get ahead on one’s office project could lead to unhappiness.

Putnam says his work is driven by a fascination with people’s differences and a quest to better understand how personality develops. “It is the ultimate question, how we become who we are,” he said.

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