Stone Age babies received better parenting, study suggests

Stone Age babies received better parenting, study suggests

Modern parents take on much more of the childcare responsibilities themselves than their Stone Age ancestors, but this leads to less effective parenting, a new study suggests.

Anthropologists at Cambridge University studied Mbendjele BaYaka, a semi-nomadic tribe who live today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to find out how traditional societies care for their youngsters.

They found that children were often looked after by more than 10 members of the group, who would respond to more than half a baby’s bouts of crying.

Communal parenting allowed children to receive an average of nine hours of close contact with older members of the tribe, which gave mothers time to work and rest.

The team speculated that sharing of parenting helped to prevent abuse, while allowing children to become better parents themselves.

“For more than 95 per cent of our evolutionary history, we lived as hunter-gatherers,” said lead author Dr Nikhil Chaudhary.

“Therefore, contemporary hunter-gatherer societies [like Mbendjele BaYaka] can offer clues as to whether there are certain child-rearing systems to which infants, and their mothers, may be psychologically adapted.

“As a society, from policymakers to employers to health care services, we need to work together to ensure mothers and children receive the support and care they need to thrive.”

DR Congo study

The DR Congo study showed that, at any one time, the ratio of caregivers to children was greater than five to one, much more than in modern homes or nurseries.

And researchers speculated that children may be “evolutionarily primed” to expect exceptionally high levels of physical contact and care, as well as personal attention from several caregivers in addition to their biological parents.

The team concluded that throughout human history and prehistory, parents had never been under the pressure they are now in terms of lack of support.

“Support for mothers also has numerous benefits for children such as reducing the risk of neglect and abuse, buffering against family adversity, and improving maternal wellbeing which in turn enhances maternal care,” said child psychiatrist, Dr Annie Swanepoel, of Elysium Healthcare.

The study also found it was common for older children and adolescents to be heavily involved in caring for infants, further supporting mothers and giving these young carers valuable experience, boosting their confidence and lowering anxiety about becoming parents themselves.

The research was published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

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