Is Breastfeeding Natural?

(This is me breastfeeding (it isn’t))

Of course it is but the whole question of what is natural can cause a lot of damage when discussing breastfeeding. I recently had a bit of a ‘debate’ on FB with a friend of a friend about breastfeeding. A modern phenomenon and not the best place for reasoned discussion, I succumbed nonetheless. The friend used the word ‘breastapo’ to describe breastfeeding advocates, which I took umbridge with but after stewing for the best part of a day I decided to look at things through an anthropologist’s eyes Continue reading

Bonding With Your Baby is a Luxury

brazilian-mother-and-baby

(Brazilian mother and child)

Sometimes I wonder whether I love my children too much. The intensity of feeling can be overwhelming but then I reassure myself that this is natural. This is part of my biological, prehistoric nature to bond with and adore my children. To sacrifice myself for them. There is nothing a mother wouldn’t do for her child. Or so the story goes. But this is our story, the story of mothers in the West at this particular point in history. Having just a few adored children and investing heavily in each one is a very particular phenomenon and relatively new to us in the West (although nomadic peoples for example have tended this way for much longer).

Nancy Scheper Hughes worked with and studied mother infant bonding in a particularly impoverished region of North Eastern Brazil in the 60’s and then again in the 80’s. She was struck not only by the very high child mortality rates there but also by the indifference that the mothers showed to the passing of their babies. Continue reading

How good are you at teaching your child?

chinese-weaving-teacher

(Flower Miao woman teaching tapestry weaving in Nawel Village, Zhuchang, Longlin, China)

Some people are natural teachers and when they have their own children, explaining why the sky is blue or what multiplication means comes easily, I unfortunately am not one of those people. When I spend time with my children we do things together, like cooking, playing or doing some craft or I’ll generally be around while they play however, unlike my partner I’m not that good at sitting down and teaching maths or how to play music for example.

I used to go to university with Jamie Tehrani and he’s now a professor at Durham University. He wrote a fascinating paper with archaeologist Felix Riede on how traditional skills are taught and passed on, also known as cultural transmission. According to Tehrani much of early human history of learning has assumed that humans learnt by observing and copying rather than any formal teaching. But it looks like this might have been wrong. Continue reading

Giving Gifts Isn’t Nice

santa-crying-baby

We have a whole set of taboos around gift giving in the West. You would never ask what a gift you’ve received cost the person giving it, and refusing a gift is unthinkable outside of very precise circumstances like those of conflict of interest or laws prohibiting gift giving to certain people (politicians for example). Nor would the person giving a gift ever express any expectation of receiving one in return. Nonetheless we all estimate what a gift might have cost and usually try to give an equivalent back.

Equivalence is very important for those who share a similar status, ie not parents and children but cousins, lovers, friends for example, and is clearly expressed at Christmas with the practise of Secret Santa giving; budgets are set to avoid anyone spending too much or too little. One person spending much more or less than the other, regardless of what they might be able to afford, creates feelings of discomfort and even bad feeling, perhaps even more so if you receive what you consider an over generous gift. Why? Continue reading

Does Your Baby Actually Want You to be Tired?

vintage-tired-mum

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?

ab6

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

lego-ad-boy-and-girl

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-baby

(!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?

baby-sushi

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.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/04/16/the-interpreter-2

http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.727.6089&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Linguistic and Cultural Variables in the Psychology of Numeracy