“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” ” – David Foster Wallace

Around the world, we raise human beings each swimming in our cultural ponds of beliefs, values and habits. They feel so natural we do not even notice them. The clearest way to see our environment is to compare it to others. Researchers over the past years have set out to ask parents from different countries a few questions about how they help their infants’ brains develop.

How do they see their role as parents? What do they believe babies capable of, at a few weeks of age? What aspects of development do they care about the most? What practices do they think most helpful for healthy physical and mental development?

A fascinating 2007 study by Sara Harkness and others tracked five groups of 20-25 middle-class families with two-month old babies in the US, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and South Korea. The families chosen were homogeneous: all nuclear, native-born, and from a given community – e.g. US suburban families in Connecticut, Italians from the northern city of Padova, Spanish from southern Andalucia, etc – and not representative of the whole country.

The million dollar question is: Are any culture’s practices more conducive than others in the development of healthy humans?

First, let’s look at what the researchers found.

Differences were significant

1) The US mothers were most focused on cognitive and sensory Stimulation:

img_2315For context, almost all US mothers studied had returned to work, since Connecticut does not provide paid parental leave (only four US States do.) Families lived far from relatives.

The most important aspect of babies’ development for the Connecticut group was the acquisition of physical and cognitive skills. They described the babies’ day as time spent interacting with various toys and mechanical or electronic sources of stimulation. They saw their parental role as providing an environment rich in toys and equipment. They decided on a schedule and trained babies to abide by it. They did not talk much about their babies’ social environment.

2) The Dutch mothers cared first and foremost about Sleep:

img_2316Rest, Regularity and cleanliness (Reinheid) are the three “R” pillars of Dutch infant care. Dutch parents moved infants into various ‘containers’ – cribs, strollers, bouncy chairs – only occasionally holding them for close physical contact and play. “In this “horticultural model” of childcare, parents seemed to see themselves as taking care of the baby by controlling the environment.” For example, to help babies fall asleep they placed them in their crib in a quiet, darkened room when they noticed signs of fatigue, but did not directly help them fall asleep with rocking/ singing 

The Italians mostly valued Socialization:

img_2317

The Italian parents considered their roles as providing high levels of physical affection, intimacy, and face-to-face interactions. They took great care at developing their infants’ ability to form significant affective relationships with others. They accommodated their babies’ schedules rather than imposing theirs, expecting babies to learn to regulate themselves eventually. Expressiveness and liveliness (“vivace”) were valued characteristics

The Spanish mothers also valued Socialization, and keeping a Schedule:

img_2318For context: The parents were surrounded by a comforting network of relatives and friends, visited daily in a multi-hour outing to ‘the street’ (‘la calle’). Like their Padovan peers, the Andalucian parents also had an intimate, proximal and affectionate style of caretaking. The main difference is that they believed that a regular schedule was important for babies. They did not expect that their babies would be able to get to sleep on their own, nor entertain themselves for much time alone. Babies were seen as the newest members of their families and the community. Their environments were described in terms of relationships with people, not mediated by objects: parents never mentioned giving toys or books, only playing and talking with their babies. The daily outing to ‘the street’ was considered an important aspect of physical, social and cognitive stimulation, in interaction with the outside world

The South Korean mothers focused on Proximity & Learning:

img_2320The South Korean parents saw their role as providing protection and attention, maintaining them as calm as possible (avoiding crying and not letting babies get too hungry), and staying physically close. They practiced co-sleeping and physical proximity. None of the babies in the sample slept alone in a separate bedroom. Like their Italian peers, they let babies settle into their own schedule of feeding and sleeping rather than impose their own. They were the most focused on babies’ cognitive development, not only providing toys but taking an active teacher role by reading books, playing music, and playing together

The study showed clearly that even in similar middle class families in developed countries, parents from different cultures can vary significantly as to: how much they value independence versus relationships, how much focus they put on emotional versus cognitive development, how much excitement and arousal they encourage versus striving to maintain a calm, soothed state, and how intimately they hold babies versus interact via equipment and toys.

Are any of our practices harmful? Are some of us depriving infant brains of something precious? Are we wasting some of our time on useless efforts?

The study did not venture an answer, and it did not report on outcomes in children’s physical and mental well-being. We can investigate many specific aspects to answer that question. Three in particular arise based on Harkness’ study:

Do sleep, relationships and touch matter?

  1. Does sleep, so paramount to the Dutch, play a part in physical growth? The Dutch have grown over the past 150 years to become the tallest nation on earth: do their infants sleep more? Apparently the human growth hormone is released into the bloodstream during sleep. Could sleep be more significant than genes or nutrition?
  2. Does higher social and emotional stimulation, so important to the Italian and Spanish families, lead to lower levels of stress hormones in the babies’ systems, or to other structural differences in their growing brains? Child psychiatrists and trauma experts – Dr Bruce D PerryDr Gabor Mate, to name a couple – emphasize the importance of relationships as foundations of healthy emotional development and as buffers against trauma. Is there a correlation between the quantity and quality of the relationship environment of babies and the cortisol levels in their saliva?
  3. Do higher level of physical intimacy – holding babies, co-sleeping, etc. observed in the Mediterranean families and South Korea – also result in structural or endocrinological differences in babies’ brains? Studies made on rats show that pups who are insufficiently nurtured grow up to be anxious, whereas highly nurtured pups grow into calm adults.  Neurobiologists like Dr David J Linden consider touch to be absolutely critical for infants:
    • Touch is not optional for human development. People who are blind or deaf from birth will for the most part develop normal bodies and brains and can live rich and fruitful lives. But deprive a newborn of social touch and a disaster unfolds.”

Anthropologists say that to observe a culture is to change it.

Our curiosity in comparing parenting styles is matched only by our fear of being judged inadequate or ineffective about something we care so deeply about. A few years ago, Yale law professor Amy Chua‘s comparison of a strict Chinese upbringing with a more permissive US one raised much controversy when it posited one as more conducive to raising high-achieving yet well-adjusted people.

Nevertheless, with the support of science, we must overcome our hyper-sensitivity, continue to observe and learn from each other’s parenting practices, research their long term effects, cherry pick promising methods, and push for better public policy,  all in the spirit of accelerating improvements in child-rearing worldwide.

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