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What an isolated community in Africa may be able to teach about child care

<i>Nikhil Chaudhary</i><br/>Looking at different cultures offers an opportunity to reexamine assumed norms around parenting.
Nikhil Chaudhary
Looking at different cultures offers an opportunity to reexamine assumed norms around parenting.

By Katie Hunt, CNN

(CNN) — Mothers in the distant past may have had much more support than they do today, according to a study of an isolated community in the Republic of Congo that practices a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Researchers found that infants in the group, known as the Mbendjele, receive attentive care and physical contact for about nine hours per day from around 14 different caregivers.

“We lived as hunter-gatherers for 95% of our evolutionary history. It was only 10,000 years ago that we stopped,” said study coauthor Nikhil Chaudhary, a researcher at the Leverhulme Centre of Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge.

“Contemporary hunter-gatherer societies can offer clues as to whether there are certain child-rearing systems to which infants, and their mothers, may be psychologically adapted,” Chaudhary said.

Part of the region’s nomadic BaYaka population that live in the Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, the Mbendjele are a highly mobile and egalitarian group that live in multifamily camps of 20 to 80 people. The study, which published this week in the journal Developmental Psychology, described them as “immediate-return” hunter-gatherers because they don’t store food for future use.

Responses to crying

Chaudhary and his colleagues followed a total of 18 children ages 4 years old and under across three camps, observing them for 12 hours, split into four-hour chunks over three days, to track how caregivers responded to the children in a typical day. The fieldwork took place in 2014.

“You observe for 20 seconds, then record everything for 10 seconds. You get this really rich, high-resolution map of their time,” Chaudhary said, adding the researchers took 15-minute breaks after 45 minutes of observation.

They extrapolated their observations for a typical 12-hour stretch when parents might be going about their work. For example, if a child was held for four and a half hours of the nine hours of observation (accounting for researchers’ breaks), the child was assumed to be held for six out of 12 consecutive daylight hours.

The team noticed that caregivers responded to crying rapidly, via comforting, soothing, feeding, holding or affection, never scolding. The children had a high degree of physical contact and care for most of time they were observed.

The team recorded 220 bouts of crying, and caregivers responded to all but three cases — the vast majority within 25 seconds. Two situations where cries didn’t elicit a response were resolved without input from a caregiver in just a minute, but in one case, a child was left to cry for 13 minutes. Infants rarely spent time alone, and for more than nine hours of the observational period they were in close contact with a caregiver, and they were held for more than five hours.

Toddlers — between 1 ½ and 4 years — were alone for 35.7 minutes of the time studied and were in close physical contact with a caregiver for more than half the day.

Responses to crying

What was notable, Chaudhary said, wasn’t necessarily the amount of care children received, but that mothers weren’t responsible for all of it. Other caregivers — fathers, older siblings and nonrelatives — were responsible for 38% to 46% of close care, according to the study.

While the mother responded alone to just under half of the crying bouts, more than 40% of crying episodes were resolved without any input from the mother. The mean number of caregivers other than a child’s mother was 14.4, but these weren’t all adults. Often it was an older sibling.

The study found that while young children benefited from a wide set of caregivers, they had a smaller number of key caregivers within this network, particularly when it came to responding to crying, which, the researchers said, still allowed strong attachments to form.

“The sheer number of people involved in looking after a kid. … It’s so different from the nuclear family system,” Chaudhary said.

“I think the starkest difference is how young the kids are when they start looking after babies. It is really not uncommon to see a 4- or 5-year-old soothing a (younger) child.”

What we can learn

Parenting experts not involved in the study said looking at different cultures offered an opportunity to reexamine assumed norms around parenting.

“Historically, parents (and especially mothers) in high-income Western countries have sometimes felt guilty for putting their children in childcare because they felt that they were somehow letting the child down by not being an exclusive caregiver,” said Jennifer Lansford, the S. Malcolm Gillis distinguished research professor of public policy and the director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University in North Carolina, via email. 

“I think the perspective from this paper suggests that children are not necessarily primed to function best with just a single caregiver and that sensitive, responsive caregiving roles can be filled by a number of people in a child’s life,” Lansford said.

Carlo Schuengel, a professor specializing in child and family studies at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, found it notable that “even in a hunter-gatherer society in which young children are in the proximity of large numbers of adults, close care is predominantly provided by a low number of selected caregivers.”

“This is yet another set of observations that show how attachment — a form of selective proximity seeking in times of stress — develops across a wide range of cultures and societies,” Schuengel said.

“The research is fascinating and important because it lets us consider alternative solutions for the conflicting demands placed on parents in other societies such as our own.”

However, he emphasized that studies of other cultures “cannot replace careful testing and evaluation of efforts we might make to further improve child care.”

Marc Bornstein, editor of the academic journal Parenting: Science and Practice, agreed. He cautioned that it was important not to overreach in interpreting such a study, given that only 18 children — eight girls and 10 boys — were involved. “How representative would a day care center with 18 children in inner-city London be of childhood … anywhere?” he asked.

He noted that child mortality was high among hunter-gatherer groups and said that the study painted “a rather rosy picture of life among the hunter-gatherer Mbendjele.”

Not living fossils

The researchers acknowledged in the new paper that sample size is small, and a larger sample would strengthen the reliability of the findings — as would following children over longer periods.

They also noted that present-day hunter-gatherers are not “living fossils.” They are still very much modern populations, even if their ways of life might offer clues about ancient parenting techniques.

“We need to be very careful when making claims about human evolutionary history based on living hunter-gatherers. We certainly can’t take for granted that we’re adapted to that way of life,” Chaudhary said.

Nevertheless, Chaudhary said that studies of child-rearing among groups such as the Mbendjele suggest that for much of human history raising a child involved large numbers of people and that “mothers aren’t meant to manage alone.”

“The narrative around motherhood, ironically, often has sort of evolutionary and biological tones to it … women have this maternal instinct and just know how to look after a baby,” he said.

“It could not be further from the truth in terms of how much of a cooperative venture child-rearing is (among the Mbendjele) and how much support mums have.”

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