Exploring ‘blind spots’ in the science of child development

Cultural variation leaves a blind spot in the science of child development as most studies are based on research on Western babies. Sujata Gupta, Learning Sciences Exchange Fellow, reports on research in Central Asia, which may challenge our current knowledge of infant motor development.

For generations, farther back than anyone can remember, the women in Rano Dodojonova’s family have placed their babies in “gahvoras,” cradles that are part diaper, part restraining device. Dodojonova, a research assistant who lives in Tajikistan, was cradled for the first two or three years of her life. She cradled her three children in the same way.

Ubiquitous throughout Central Asia, the wooden gahvora is often a gift for newlyweds. The mother positions her baby on his back with his bottom firmly over a hole. Underneath is a bucket to capture whatever comes out. She then binds the baby with several long swaths of fabric so that only the baby’s head can move. Next, she connects a funnel, specially designed for either boys or girls, to send urine out to that same bucket under the cradle. Finally, she drapes heavy fabric over the handle atop the gahvora to protect the child from bright light and insects.

Babies stay in that womblike apparatus for hours on end, with use decreasing as the child ages. When babies fuss, mothers often shush them by vigorously rocking the cradle back and forth or leaning over the side to breastfeed. Besides keeping babies dry and warm, gahvoras provide a sense of safety, Dodojonova says. “It is very nice for children because they are bound and cannot move.” Eventually, they are running and jumping like children everywhere.

To the uninitiated, this child-rearing approach may sound odd, or even shocking. Yet cultures should be viewed within their own context, says psychologist Catherine Tamis-LeMonda of New York University. “We engage in practices that fit our needs, our own everyday lives.”

To continue reading Sujata’s article, see “Culture helps shape when babies learn to walk” published on September 10th in the Science News.

Sujata Gupta is a Learning Sciences Exchange Fellow as well as an award-winning freelance science journalist whose writing focuses on issues related to food, ecology, and health. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, NPR, Nature, High Country News, Discover, Scientific American, Wired, NovaNext, and New Scientist, among others. Gupta recently completed a Knight Science Journalism fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, where she focused on weaving science into fictional children’s stories. Prior to the fellowship, she taught journalism at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont and worked as a reporter and editor at various newspapers. Gupta spent several years as an English teacher in Japan and as a National Park ranger.

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