The NHS along with most other medical and psychological research advises mothers to look at and talk to their babies right from birth. Failure to do so can result in delayed and restricted speech and potentially even psychological damage. Really? What if you’re not a very chatty sort of person? Or you’re really tired today and just want to flop next to them on the floor and let them rummage about without asking them what sound a cow makes?
The Gusii inhabit the highlands east of Lake Victoria in Kenya. Bob LeVine studied a group of Gusii mothers in comparison with a group of mothers in Boston, Massachusetts and found some fascinating differences in the way they respond to their babies. Gusii mums don’t look at or talk to their babies very much at all. If their babies cry or babble they respond in much the same way for either sound by touching and holding their infants. So whilst they may not talk to them much their babies do get lots of cuddles. The aim is to soothe and protect rather than stimulate and educate.
Boston mums like the rest of us, talk and look at their babies much more. Partly this is because we put babies in prams and highchairs so talking makes sense if you’re not holding your baby. But also we value talking and looking people in the eye, so that’s what we do with our babies too. The Gusii however don’t really like eye to eye contact when they talk to each other so partly they’re just teaching their children to fit in. Talking to babies who can’t talk back is seen as a waste of time. Do their babies still learn to talk? Of course they do, and significantly there’s no evidence they are less attached to their mothers either.
Don’t feel like playing with your baby much today? Don’t worry just carry them around a bit instead. Some days you might just not feel like holding a non-stop one way conversation or pointing out the colours, or shapes or other mind numbing details. Skip it today. The baby will be fine and you’ll feel like chatting another day. Babies need responsiveness but not necessarily to be looked at, talked to and taught all the time but to feel secure when they’re in distress, the rest seems up for debate.
To read the paper in full click here: