Does Your Baby Actually Want You to be Tired?


So in a small departure, this week’s post takes a look at a theory from evolutionary biology not anthropology. This is not my specialism so apologies for any over-simplification but I thought it was so interesting it was worth writing about.

Mother and baby: a relationship in harmony or in conflict?

Most people in the West have pretty incoherent and conflicting beliefs around the relationship between mothers and their babies. On the one hand having a baby is seen as the most natural thing in the world, mothers and babies are seen as working in harmony, each biologically programmed to work together for the best possible outcome. On the other hand, birth is incredibly dangerous, babies are exhausting and are occasionally described as ‘manipulative’ for wanting more milk or crying a lot. Harmony on the one side and conflict on the other. Evolutionary biologist David Haig, addresses the subject of infant sleep with the intention of illuminating just how little harmony there often is. Continue reading

When Was the Last Time You Had a Good Night’s Sleep?


Interrupted sleep is the most common complaint of new parents in the UK. Tiredness, fatigue, exhaustion, all the synonyms come into play when describing what for many is the hardest part of being a parent, especially when the children are still very young. Everything I’ve read indicates that we have unrealistic expectations of how well and long babies should sleep but also how well and long adults should sleep too. There’s such a lot of fascinating research on sleep that I’m going to write this in a few parts.

There is a school of thought that says that babies and toddlers who don’t sleep through the night shouldn’t be expected to. If we look at sleep practises around the world, bed sharing and breastfeeding during the night are so common that putting babies in their own room to sleep all night can seem rather bizarre. Are we really the only culture that doesn’t sleep with their babies? Would it be better if we did? Should babies be sleeping through by six months or a year? Continue reading

Why Boys and Girls Don’t Play Together


Gendered toys and toy shop displays regularly make appearances in articles and social media chat and whilst some parents resist princess parties and buying guns for boys it is pretty much accepted that on the whole boys prefer playing with boys and girls prefer playing with girls. This has been backed up by quite a bit of child psychology, some neuroscience and even primatology. Frustratingly this has not been discussed in a wider cross cultural context very much at all. The BBC rebroadcast the Horizon documentary Is Your Brain Male or Female last week and the programme didn’t think to include different cultures when discussing nature/ nurture. How can we discuss ‘nurture’ as a generic thing when the way we bring up our children varies so much across the world?

I think one of the reasons for this is that in most societies men and women are still very unequal, so it starts to look like a universal that boys and girls tend to play differently. When you compare farmers in Mexico, with Japanese village life for example, their children playing doesn’t look that different. This is why hunter-gatherers (or foragers) have so often featured in anthropological research, because they are some of the most equal societies on earth and they often prove the exception to the rule. Continue reading

Why Attachment Parenting Is So Hard


(!Kung grandmother and child)

There’s an unspoken belief that the hunter gatherer way of life is an early, more ‘natural’ form of human society. Attachment parenting has placed a great deal of emphasis on the positive examples set by contemporary hunter gatherer parenting with a sometimes explicit implication that we are being more ‘natural’ by following the advice that they give. Many of the ideas have now become mainstream and benefited from further scientific studies to back them up. Skin on skin contact after birth, breastfeeding on demand, empathetic discipline rather than fear based discipline etc. However, controversies over crying it out, baby wearing and co-sleeping have also made it a source of tension and confusion amongst many parents.

So who are these hunter gatherers that seem to have it all sorted with their loved, attached babies and children? Well, in the case of attachment/natural/gentle parenting much of the advice all stems from research on just one group in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia: the !Kung. These guys have been studied by anthropologists, psychologists and other researchers since at least the 1950’s. They’re so used to researchers they now accept that they must just be extremely interesting people!

Today I just want to focus on one paper that studies infant crying amongst the !Kung. Crying it out is mega controversial and differences of opinion can break friendships but what I want to highlight is whilst the !Kung do seem to set a wonderful example of parenting, at least to my eye, it is also extremely hard for us to replicate.

The !Kung are believed to have one of the closest mother-infant relationships ever studied. On average !Kung infants are never left to cry for any significant time, one minute being the absolute maximum and only with new borns who cry more anyway. However, the mother alone only responds to the infant for less than half of the time. The rest of the time she is either helped by someone else in the community, or someone else responds instead. On top of this it is extremely rare for a mother to be alone with her infant. This makes me cry a bit on the inside. The hours I’ve spent alone with my babies, at home, in the park, down the shops. Even when I’ve been with friends or other parents if the baby cries or needs something it’s me who responds. Imagine having that much help and support?

So all the attachment parenting gurus are telling us that not only do we need to be the best mother we can be but we also need to be all the other people in the community. !Kung mums are not expected to do this alone so why are we? It’s no wonder so many of us get depressed.

Being open to new ideas from other cultures can only be positive but to neglect the context in which these ideas are found is telling only half of the story. I for one love how the !Kung raise their children but I live in a big Western city far away from my family, I’d love more company and more support but in the absence of that I can only do my best.

This is mostly derived from the article by Melvin Konner called Who Responds To Crying

If you want to know more about the !Kung this is a classic paper by James Woodburn

What Shouldn’t You Eat When Pregnant?


No raw egg yolks, no unpasteurised cheese, no sushi etc etc. Are women everywhere given restrictive diets? Basically the answer is yes but what is restricted varies hugely. In parts of Thailand papaya salad, pickled food, spicy hot food, coffee, tea and shellfish are all to be avoided. In parts of Madagascar peanuts, bananas and milk are taboo. Masaii women have traditionally followed a near starvation diet for the last months of pregnancy with very little meat intake and induced vomiting. The intention is to reduce the size of the baby and allow for a safer birth. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, the neonatal mortality rate is particularly high.

Amongst the Huoarani in Ecuador, pregnant mothers don’t eat fish or most types of meat towards the end of their pregnancy too but what is really interesting is that expectant dads don’t either. Expectant couples see themselves as ‘one flesh’ so it’s vital that fathers participate to ensure their child’s good health. Laura Rival writes about how she observed one occasion when a pregnant mother was prescribed vitamins by a visiting doctor and she shared these with her partner too. It’s interesting to see how both parents are encouraged to take care of themselves, not just the mother, and that the father’s body is part of pregnancy too.

I really wanted to eat poached eggs so took the salmonella risk seeing as it seemed extremely unlikely and also drank small amounts of alcohol as the NHS at the time said that was permitted and did the same with my second even though they’d changed their advice by then. I would think that most mothers don’t always stick to all the rules however, it’s well documented that French women do avoid unpasteurised cheese even if Japanese women do eat sushi, so I would err on the side of caution and follow NHS guidelines as much as possible.

Laura Rival article on the Huoarani

Madagascar Health research (not anthropology)

Madagascar pregnancy and gender article – Rita Astuti

Fun article in the Guardian with loads of anecdotal stories in the comments

How Do Children Learn to Count?

According to mainstream linguistics and experimental psychology humans are born with an innate understanding of numbers. Show a nine month old baby two or three objects and it will know there is a difference between the two sets of things.

However, it is also widely understood that some cultures are better with numbers than others. The Chinese for example are often cited as having extremely high levels of maths attainment and their children are some of the best in the world when it comes to maths. The Piraha in the Brazilian Amazon however, go against most accepted knowledge about human culture and lack even the words for one and two. Instead they have hói meaning ‘a small size or amount’ which can mean anything from 1 -3, hoí ‘a somewhat larger amount’ which can be anything from 2 – 7 and than the term baagoi which is for larger also unspecified quantities. Although children can be taught to count to ten in Portuguese their parents have completely lost the capacity to learn to count to ten by the time they reach adulthood in large part because their language just doesn’t allow for that comprehension.

Whilst we’re all born with the same capacity to learn and use numbers, it is clear that our culture and our language shapes how well we do this as we grow up. So, if we want out children to be great at maths can we learn from the Chinese? In Chinese the words for eleven and twelve are ten-one and ten-two (and so on), as a consequence it has been claimed by many researchers that this linguistic advantage explains their prodigious numeracy. However, it’s not just their language. The Chinese love numbers and numerology plays a significant role in religious beliefs and rituals. Parents also greatly value their children’s maths achievements. So, if we want our children to be great at maths perhaps the one thing we can do is to learn to love maths ourselves.


These are the main articles I used for this post. The New Yorker article is a fun read as is Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, which is a great non academic anthropology book about the truly fascinating Piraha.

Linguistic and Cultural Variables in the Psychology of Numeracy

When to stop breastfeeding


When it’s time time to wean* your child from breastfeeding the advice currently is to take it at the child’s pace and not to force it. However, if the Bofi in central Africa are anything to go by that might not be until they’ve reached the age of three or four which is pushing it, as far as most Western mothers are concerned. I’ve been wondering how best to go about it with my very keen to feed toddler and found the accounts of differing methods amongst the Bofi very interesting.

Whilst both communities call themselves Bofi and share the same language, one community are farmers and the other foragers and live in distinct ways.

Bofi foragers let their child decide when they want to stop breastfeeding and make no conscious effort to hurry the process along although they do progressively spend less time with their children as they work more, allowing other members of the family to hold and care for them. Letting their children decide when to stop is in line with how they see themselves and their offspring. They value independence and Bofi adults respect their children, seeing them as capable of making their own decisions. Children aren’t warned off playing with sharp objects and they are given the choice of whether they would like to help their mothers or to play instead. When a mother was asked when she planned to stop breastfeeding she laughed and replied ‘Only he knows. Ask him. I cannot know how he thinks/feels.’

Bofi farmers on the other hand encourage obedience in their children and use fear and corporal punishment as methods to achieve this. Which sounds harsh but is actually very similar to Western parenting. e.g. ‘don’t go in the forest because it’s dangerous, the spirits might get you. Don’t touch that knife, you’ll cut yourself.’ etc When it comes to stopping breastfeeding the age of two is considered optimum. Mothers start by feeding less and working more until finally they choose a day and then either paint their nipples red with nail varnish or bandage up their breasts telling their toddlers that they have injured their nipples and can no longer feed them.

As a result Bofi farmer children cry and fuss a lot more than their foraging counterparts during weaning which is probably also made worse by the fact that they are held a lot less than forager children and that once they are weaned they aren’t really held by anyone at all, spending their days with siblings whilst their mothers work.

What are the consequences of the two different methods? Well, they both get weaned eventually and there is no evidence that the attachment is any weaker in farmer children nor that they suffer emotionally later on. Western mothers, like Bofi farming mothers, often have to or want to return to work earlier so weaning will be more upsetting for their children but you can ease the process by making sure they get plenty of cuddles from you or others. I on the other hand feel reassured that I’m not some weirdo for still feeding my toddler so perhaps I’ll wait a little longer.

*By weaning I mean stopping breastfeeding altogether not introducing solid food.

If you want to read more here’s the academic article by by Hillary N. Fouts, Barry S. Hewlett, and Michael E. Lamb where I got most of my info.

Birthing Partners


Husbands or partners getting involved during labour and at the moment of birth is a relatively new phenomenon in the West (although there are exceptions, aristocratic men in Britain for example, notably Prince Albert, attended their children’s births). Traditionally midwives or later on doctors would attend births with fathers pretty much entirely excluded from the process until the 1960’s. However, it seems like it’s not just modern Western men that get involved. Huoarani fathers to be are also their wive’s midwives (midhusbands?!)

Expectant fathers are the main or only support during their wife’s labour, massaging their backs and applying pain relieving leaves to their stomachs, back and temples. They may even reach inside if for instance the umbilical chord has wrapped around the baby’s neck and once the baby is born they will also cut the umbilical chord. After the birth they will restrict their diets in the same way their wives do and stay close by.

This mirrors their attitude to their community as a whole. If a member of the long house (even if they don’t actually live in long houses anymore) gets ill then the whole community may follow a particular diet until the patient is better. Long houses but couples especially may consider themselves ‘one flesh’ in this regard.

So if your partner complains about attending ante-natal classes, or is out drinking as much as they can ‘while I still can’ point out that some people view pregnancy and birth as a team and how about giving you a massage instead.

With thanks to Laura Rival for this article.


Attachment and talking to your infant

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: