26 February, 2013

Attachment in traditional, "AP" type societies

Do traditional societies promote strong attachment in the way that "Attachment Parenting" enthusiasts would like to suggest? I've posted some personal opinion on this issue a while ago, but I thought some evidence was in order.

I have been reading work on attachment in African societies - there are a few studies over the years, some quite old, some fairly recent - and first I should explain a couple of things:

Firstly, and I know a lot of people will realise this, babies are not "attached" or "unattached". Researchers in this field talk about babies having a "style" which does seem to lead to some differences in older childhood or later life.  But some styles - mainly a "secure" style - have been suggested may lead to children being more confident and able to cope with life when they are older. And others - in particular a "disorganised" style seem to be associated with risk factors. If you want to read more about the overall theory of attachment,

Secondly, although mainstream attachment researchers believe that a mother's sensitivity to her child's behaviour is what leads to differences in attachment, there's now a lot of evidence that other differences between mothers (especially mind-mindedness - parents' ability to work out what a baby might be thinking) are more important.

So although the mainstream attachment researchers might not completely agree with other researchers who look at babies' development on what is driving babies' attachment styles, it's still interesting to look at what's happening in traditional societies - especially since some of the core components of "Attachment Parenting" are found in these societies - especially bedsharing, breastfeeding on demand, and carrying babies close in a sling or arms most of the time.

Some of the factors in the African societies I've been reading about, though, are far less than what child development researchers - and a lot of parents - would consider optimal for babies. Other factors are just a little different to what we in the North or West might be used to.

It's pretty common in a lot of developing countries for older children to spend a lot of time caring for young infants. This is something most of us might consider a neutral influence - in the extreme it might not be ideal for the older children, and it's different to the standard Western setting where a parent or two are the main carers, but it's unlikely to be harmful, would be most people's thought at the outset.

Among the Gusii people in Kenya this is the standard caring practice but older children spend most of the day playing with the baby, while the mother still feeds and washes the baby. Some schools of thought would say that it's the main carer - the one who does all the practical stuff for the baby - that would be the person a baby is most attached to. But in this group, babies are attached both to their mother and to their older child playmates. And interestingly, it was the attachment to the playmate that predicted babies' cognitive development - not, as we'd expect from Western families, their attachment to their mother.

Gusii woman and toddler

A couple of other situations that are common in developing countries, that we might think were less than ideal (to put it mildly), are polygamy* and high infant mortality.  Two of the African attachment studies were in societies that practice polygamy and with particular dangers to infants, and/or high infant mortality.

In the Hausa society in Nigeria, many adults - including co-wives - live in a compound with children of all of the adults.  Babies are cared for by one caregiver in particular, usually an adult, but not always the mother - in some cases, the mother feeds the baby and then the baby is immediately passed back to the caregiver.  Infants aren't allowed to move around or to explore physically, but they are happy to explore objects they are given or to look around their environment - but only if they feel secure, if their main caregiver is present.  They seem to be attached, mainly securely, to their main caregiver - and as in the Gusii society it's not necessarily the person who feeds them.

The ethnographic research conducted by The Population and Reproductive Health Partnership highlighted several social, cultural, and economic factors that underlie poor health including lack of opportunity and women’s circumscribed decision-making power
Hausa woman and toddler

In the Dogon group in Mali, life seems to be quite similar to among the Hausa. Babies suffer very high infant mortality, and live with their mother and her co-wives. Babies are fed on demand - as the "AP" enthusiasts would like - and kept physically close. However in this group a lot more babies seemed to be "disorganised" in their attachment. This seemed to be related not to any failure in the main "AP" practices but to some rather frightened or frightening behaviour on the part of the mother.  Interestingly this doesn't fit into the main "attachment is due to sensitivity" theory as well as it does to the "attachment follows from mind-mindedness" - appearing frightened or negative when a baby wants to play positively is a good example of not being mind-minded.  It may be that mothers feel the need for toddlers to be obedient and stay close, due to the dangerous nature of their life, and that they think frightening the babies is the best way to achieve this.

Dogon woman carrying baby

If you're interested in finding out more:

Tomlinson, M., Murray, L., & Cooper, P. (2010). Attachment theory, culture, and Africa: Past, present, and future. Attachment: Expanding the cultural connections, 181-194.

*which is a bad thing, if you are interested, because it only works on a society wide basis with very young marriage of women, similarly very young first pregnancies, and very large age gaps between husbands and wives.