The Daily Telegraph

Hunter-gatherer babies ‘had better parenting than today’

- By Sarah Knapton science editor

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

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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