I recently had the pleasure of reading Baby Meets World, a new book by Nicholas Day. (Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.) Baby Meets World is a mix of history of parenting advice and modern, fascinating science about some of the most fundamental truths of infancy (as the subtitle states: “suck, smile, touch, toddle”). You may have seen the author’s recent blog on Slate, called How Babies Work. I liked the blog, but I like the book more. In a world of conflicting parenting advice, Day’s many examples of how wrong or just plain weird the expert advice has been through the ages is refreshing perspective. And even as this book describes the modern science of infancy – highlighting just how amazing babies are – it cautions us that we can’t understand babies, even in the most empirical way, without putting them in the context of the culture into which they are born.
Reading Baby Meets World led me to an email conversation with the author, which I’ll post on the blog tomorrow. He also offered to share an excerpt from the book with you. I chose an excerpt from the “Touch” section of the book – my favorite of the four sections. Since it comes near the end of this section, it requires a bit of an introduction to put it in context.
We know touch is important to babies, but Western parenting culture has had a complicated relationship with touch. Just a century ago, parents were barely allowed to visit their children in newborn nurseries or pediatric hospital wards. That history is now, thankfully, behind us, and skin-to-skin contact and baby wearing have become mainstream practices.
Part of the renewed interest in touch over the last fifty years has come from anthropological accounts of hunter-gatherer societies. We figure that maybe we have lost touch with our roots, that maybe we could re-learn the right way to parent from modern hunter-gatherer societies, who presumably parent the way we were meant to.
Day describes some of these modern hunter-gatherers, including the Kung of the Kalahari Desert. Kung infants are carried and held almost constantly. They are breastfed frequently, as often as every fifteen minutes. If they’re not being held by their mothers, they’re being passed around between community members, showered with kisses and constantly entertained. They’re hardly ever set down on the ground to move of their own accord; the Kung believe this impairs motor development.
I’ve read about the Kung before. They’re sometimes held up as an ideal for modern parents in the same conversation that chastises us for relying too much on gadgets like strollers and baby swings. But in this chapter, Day tells us how the culture of the Kung supports this kind of intensive parenting:
“The entire structure of a Kung community supports the (many) demands of Kung parenting. A Kung mother is virtually always around other adults, who take turns holding the child. The situation is the polar opposite of that of many American mothers, who can feel marooned on an island with no one but this ferret-like creature around.”
“Almost half the time a Kung infant cries out, he is comforted by someone who isn’t his mother or by his mother plus someone else. When the mother responds alone, other people offer to take the child later on. The Kung mother isn’t abandoned with a wailing infant. But despite this shared caretaking, the Kung, as Konner notes, “have often been misrepresented as having almost exclusive maternal care.”
In other words, the Kung practice what we might call intensive parenting, but the mother does not do this alone. She has lots of help. And this is where our excerpt picks up…
Excerpt from Chapter 13: “In Which Touch Gets Perhaps a Little Too Much Power” (from Baby Meets World by Nicholas Day)
It’s worth dwelling on the distinction between exclusive maternal care and alloparenting— the term for when someone who isn’t a parent acts as a parent, as the Kung do when they respond to any crying baby. If the most important messages to get across to a baby— love, security, commitment— are communicated through touch, then the obvious follow- up question is: does it matter who’s doing the touching? The parent or the alloparent?
From the perspective of attachment theory, all child rearing is aimed at the same end: the tight bond between mother and child. There aren’t multiple different strategies toward a successful outcome— there’s only that one. (Bowlby waffled on this a little bit but not much: his hypothetical caregiver was clearly a mother.) The mother is supposed to be doing the touching. This argument wades into the evolutionary past for evidence— the low fat content of human milk, for example, which required infants to nurse frequently, for which they needed a mother right there, all the time. In devising his theory, Bowlby cited the behavior of primates like gorillas and chimpanzees, for whom child care is exclusively maternal— no one else need apply.
But studies of hunter-gatherers like the Kung, the very people you’d expect to be closest to our deep past, have shown that caregiving by someone in addition to the mother is common, even if other people rarely supplant the mother as the primary attachment figure. Continue reading