Parenting Lessons From Nature
Think you're smarter than a chimpanzee? So why does your baby cry and scream so much more than her offspring? What can new parents learn from how non-human primates raise their young?
My first child was born two weeks ago, and I've also been reading Parenting for Primates, Harriet Smith's excellent study of parenting practices among primate species and traditional human societies. While I'm no kind of parenting expert, here are a few of the ideas from this book that I've found useful as a new dad.
Parenting is not instinctive
Many people expect themselves to instinctively know what to do with a new child, and may criticise themselves for lacking a maternal or paternal instinct. This is unrealistic. Even among our primate relatives, parenting is not instinctive. For example, cottontop tamarins who have been hand-reared by humans and brought up in captivity are often terrified of their own offspring, and consequently will neglect and abuse them. In primate species and traditional human societies, individuals learn to parent based on their own childhood experiences, observing others, and supervised babysitting practice. In modern societies, many people arrive at parenthood with little of this experience.
The lesson for new parents is to treat parenting like learning any other complex new skill set. Seek out reliable information and opportunities for supervised practice (e.g. draw on books, relatives, the net, your midwife, and hospital staff). Sometimes advice can seem conflicting or impractical, so you will need to use your critical thinking skills, common sense, and a bit of trial and error to figure out what works for you. As Bruce Lee said, adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.
Babies like to be carried
Many parents will admit putting their baby into the stroller or even the car and taking them somewhere, not because the travel is necessary, but just to help the baby to settle. Why is motion so soothing for babies?
Most primate infants cling to their parents or older relatives and are carried around wherever they go. Human babies don't have the strength to cling, so in traditional societies they are often placed in slings. Since both primate and human babies are relatively helpless in the face of predators and other dangers, being kept close keeps them safe. Being carried in a stroller or being rocked in someone's arms replicates the motion of being carried by someone who is walking, which is probably why it is so reassuring for babies. Also, it was probably adaptive for babies to remain quiet and settled while their parents traversed potentially hostile territory.
Even more effective than a stroller is a baby sling, which keeps your infant warm and close, where she can sense your heartbeat and breathing. A sling allows you to carry on with many day-to-day activities and is also a nice way for dad to be close to baby. Slingbabies provides a useful guide to choosing and using a sling, and you should also read the essential safety guidelines for using a sling.
A corollary of babies' desire to be carried is that they live in constant fearof being dropped (falls are still one of the most common causes of injury to infants). For this reason, they prefer to be held with a firm, confident grip (rather than held tentatively or roughly). This takes practice to develop.
Nature is not silent
Complete silence is uncommon in nature. While your copy of the latest Cannibal Corpse album is unlikely to help your baby sleep, infants sleep better when they hear soft, natural sounds. In one study, 80% of infants fell asleep spontaneously within five minutes when they heard ‘white noise' recordings, whereas only 25% fell asleep without this aid. There are many recordings of this type available (e.g. Sleep Pillow).
Modern life is not always easy for babies
While modern technology has no doubt made life more pleasant for babies in some ways, in other ways it has not. So, if you are wondering why your infant is obstinately resisting you changing her diaper at 4 am, it is worth knowing that diapering babies is an uncommon practice among humans and probably seems quite bizarre to your child. Don't take it personally.
Other useful resources
The website Parenting Science provides an informative and balanced guide to many of the challenging areas of parenting (with references to relevant research). The book Call Me Dad! is an accessible guide to the practicalities of new fatherhood.
By ‘Treat your baby like a monkey' I don't mean to keep her in a cage, feed her on a banana-based diet, or teach her to throw her feces at people she doesn't like. Just to be clear, for those readers who might take things a bit literally.