Across the world, birth rates are dropping. The global fertility rate has halved since 1950, with indications that this will continue to fall. There are a number of suggestions as to why this is the case: women may stay in education or the workforce rather than have multiple children, for instance, and many people across the world now have much greater access to contraception.
But many adults are also explicitly deciding not to have children, instead choosing to be “childfree”. The childfree movement has grown rapidly over the last few years: the ‘r/Childfree’ subreddit has over 1.4 million subscribers, whilst mediacoverage has proliferated in the UK and US.
But are the childfree missing out on the joys that come from parenthood? According to a new study published in PLOS One, that isn’t the case: childfree adults are just as satisfied with their lives as parents.
But at what point do young kids actually intervene when they see someone else acting fairly or unfairly? According to a series of studies in Cognition, before they’re even one and a half years old children will reward someone for being fair — though they don’t yet punish unfair behaviour.
Having a new baby is never easy: it’s difficult to manage the stress of birth, sleepless nights, and juggling of childcare and domestic responsibilities, especially for first-time parents. Some also experience postnatal depression, which is estimated to affect 23% of women in Europe after the birth of a child (men also experience postnatal depression, though the numbers are not so clear).
Add to new parenting the impact of lockdown, and that figure could rise sharply, a new study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests. Working with women with babies aged six months or younger in the UK during the first COVID-19 lockdown, UCL’s Sarah Myers and Emily H. Emmott found that almost half met the threshold for postnatal depression — double the average European rates.
The controversial idea that there are universals in the ways we use music received a boost in 2018, with the finding that people from 60 different countries were pretty good at judging whether a totally unfamiliar piece of music from another culture was intended to soothe a baby or to be danced to. Now, new research involving some of the same team has revealed that foreign lullabies that babies have never heard before work to relax them.
Conversations about race are not always easy, as the writer Reni Eddo-Lodge has recently explored in her brilliant book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. But they’re no less necessary for it: not talking about racism is simply not an option, particularly for those of us who benefit from structural inequality.
We all have a part to play in this ongoing dialogue — including parents of children growing up in a world full of racial injustice. Previous research has suggested that constructive conversations about race and ethnicity can have positive outcomes for children of all races — increased empathy, an ability to learn about and accept different perspectives, a better understanding of their own identity, and less racial bias.
But a new paper from Jessica Sullivan at Skidmore College and colleagues, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggests that those crucial conversations are being delayed — because parents are misjudging their children’s ability to process and understand race.
It’s an oft-repeated supposition that you can tell whether someone fancies you by their body language: if they mirror how you’re standing or moving, the theory goes, they might just like you back. But romantic partners don’t just have behavioural synchrony — in some cases, they have brain-to-brain synchrony too.
A pattern that has also been observed in musicians and their audiences, brain-to-brain synchrony is a mirroring of neural activity between individuals or groups. And according to a new study in Scientific Reports, such synchrony in spouses could affect how they respond to their children.
Language learning can be a matter of much concern for new parents, who often worry about what their baby is saying, how they’re saying it, and when. With previous research suggesting that frequent verbal engagement with babies can boost vocabulary and reading comprehension, this preoccupation is not without merit. But even those parents who aren’t too fixated on baby’s first word may in fact be improving their offspring’s language, even if they’re not aware of it.
A form of speech dubbed “parentese” may be a key factor in improving language learning in infants, a new study in PNAS has suggested. Naja Ferjan Ramírez and colleagues from the University of Washington examined the distinctive form of sing-song speech often aimed at babies, finding that it improved conversation between parents and their children and even boosted language development.
Babies’ first motor skills – how early they learn to reach for things and explore them – are related to their later abilities, both motor skills (such as crawling and walking) and skills in other domains, such as their vocabulary. This raises the intriguing possibility that those early motor abilities facilitate subsequent developments, triggering what psychologists call a “developmental cascade”. This makes sense – for example, a baby who can already reach for and interact with things tends to attract more attention from his or her parents, which in turn is likely to foster further broad developmental progress.
A new study in Developmental Science has tested this cascade theory with a training intervention. The researchers in America recruited a group of 14 three-month-old babies and their mothers, and for two weeks, the mothers were instructed to engage their infants in ten minutes per day of active reaching training. This involved the babies wearing Velcro covered mittens and being encouraged to reach for Velcro covered toys, with the Velcro helping the babies to successfully reach for and obtain the toys. A comparison group of 11 three-month-olds and their mothers spent the same time performing a passive version of the training, without the Velcro, in which the mothers touched the toys to their infants’ hands. The babies also completed a basic test of their grasping skills, before and after their training.
When the babies were 15 months old, they returned to the psychology lab and were videoed playing with a bead-maze toy (a wooden block with metal wires attached, along which beads could be pushed). A further control group of fifteen 15-month-old babies who hadn’t participated in any training at three months were also videoed playing with the toy.
The babies who’d received the active reaching training at 3 months of age showed more precocious motor and attentional skills when playing with the toy, as compared with the two other groups. For example, they spent more time looking at, grasping and rotating the toy and less time being distracted. Moreover, the babies’ post-training, but not pre-training, grasping abilities at age 3 months were related to their play behaviour at 15 months, consistent with the idea that the early training had had a long-term influence.
The study involved only a small number of children, all of whom were from highly educated families, and this wasn’t a true randomised controlled trial because the no-training control group were recruited later and only visited the lab once. Nonetheless, these are fascinating results that suggest infants’ very early motor abilities have long-lasting knock-on effects on their later development, and that it may be possible to intervene early to assist this process. The researchers said intervening in this way might be particularly beneficial to babies born preterm and children at risk for autism, who are known to show motor delays and reduced grasping movements early in infancy.
_________________________________ Libertus, K., Joh, A., & Needham, A. (2015). Motor training at 3 months affects object exploration 12 months later Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12370
A US academic who spent 16 months embedded in three American psychology baby labs reports that he observed numerous examples of researchers cutting corners and bending the rules of science. Writing in Socius, David Peterson at Northwestern University in Chicago says that doing psychology research with babies is so challenging and costly that developmental psychologists routinely do things like: checking early in a study whether their results are going to be significant (and abandoning or changing tack if they don’t look promising); comparing notes with other supposedly independent judges when coding whether babies are looking at a stimulus; taking a relaxed approach to task instructions (for example, telling mothers that it doesn’t really matter too much if their eyes are closed or not during a task); and making up post-hoc explanatory stories to account for surprising results, with those stories later presented as the initial impetus for the research. As an example of that last point, Peterson quotes an exchange between a grad student and her mentor: “You don’t have to reconstruct your logic. You have the results now. If you can come up with an interpretation that works, that will motivate the hypothesis.”
The open-access paper, presented as an ethnographic study of baby labs, comes at a time when psychology is working hard to tighten up its research practices, for example through the Center for Open Science and the introduction of registered reports in which planned hypothesis-driven methodologies are accepted for publication before their results are in. Peterson says that he “took part in nearly every aspect of laboratory life”, that he took notes throughout the course of each day, and recorded all direct quotations immediately. “Ultimately I argue that developmental psychologists meet disciplinary requirements through a set of strategies that bend results toward statistical significance,” he writes.
Watching toddlers pinch, hit and bite each other doesn’t fill you with confidence about human nature. But there’s no need to be down about it – the little devils don’t yet have the self-control to manage their anger and frustration, that’s all. Right?
Not according to a new study published in Developmental Science, which is the first to systematically investigate the use of force in infants from age 11 months and up. Audun Dahl at the University of California, Santa Cruz, finds that in fact most of the time, the use of aggression* by toddlers is unprovoked.
Dahl interviewed 74 middle-class mothers with infants who were aged on average 16 months (range 11 to 24 months; 33 female). He asked these mums to describe a recent time when their child harmed someone else. Analysing the mothers’ stories, he found that in 76 per cent of the situations, the act of aggression was unprovoked and the aggressive infant did not show any signs of visible distress. This chimes with past research in which mothers reported their toddlers mostly showed signs of pleasure when they caused upset to other people.
Meanwhile, 26 per cent of the aggressive acts were provoked, for example to regain a toy from a sibling (and usually accompanied by distress), and 3 per cent were accidental. Overall, the stats argue against the idea that babies and toddlers mostly hit, scratch and bite as a way to vent their anger or frustration because they haven’t yet developed enough self-control.
To get more evidence, Dahl filmed 26 more infants (11 female) in their own homes for 2.5 hours each visit, always in the company of the child’s mother and a sibling. When he first visited each child, they were 14-months-old, then he returned when they were 19-months and 24-months-old. Analysing the videos for acts of aggression, he found that 49 per cent of the time the use of force was unprovoked, 43 per cent of the time it was provoked, and 8 per cent of incidences were accidental. Parents were the most frequent targets of aggression, followed by siblings and pets.
Zooming in on the acts of unprovoked aggression, most of the time these appeared to be what Dahl calls “explorative force”, for example to get attention, and there was rarely evidence that the aggressive infant was distressed. Less often, these unprovoked attacks were actually “miscalibrated force” – for example hitting the dog over the head when the probable intent was to stroke him.
More clues come from the infants’ personality: the toddlers who scored higher on their tendency to show pleasure tended to be the ones who committed more acts of unprovoked aggression, again suggesting they were using force as a form of fun interaction, rather than in rage. Also, provoked and unprovoked aggression showed different developmental trajectories. Provoked use of force increased consistently over time whereas unprovoked use of force rose at first, peaked at around 18 months, then decreased when the children were aged two.
These developmental results fit the idea that provoked aggressive acts are a symptom of toddlers’ ongoing lack of self control (and growing wilfulness) whereas their more frequent unprovoked aggression is more related to exploration and attention-seeking, combined with a relative lack of understanding about other people’s pain. Unprovoked acts presumably became less frequent from 18-months onwards as the toddlers learned that their aggression hurts others, or as they became more sensitive to other people’s distress. Complementing this account, Dahl found that unprovoked aggressive acts were especially likely to elicit negative reactions from parents or siblings, which presumably helped the toddlers learn to refrain from this behaviour.
Dahl concluded that his results show “that infants’ use of force against others is more diverse than typically assumed”, and he said more research on the topic is now needed in other settings and cultures to better understand how young children come to realise that unjustified aggression is wrong.
_________________________________ Dahl, A. (2015). Infants’ unprovoked acts of force toward others Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12342
*Note: Audun Dahl prefers not to describe infants’ use of force as “aggression” which implies the intent to harm, which he says is “difficult or impossible to assess in infants”. I chose to use a mix of descriptive words to avoid repetition, to resonate with readers’ everyday experience (parents rarely speak of “acts of force” but they do fret about their children’s aggression), and also because Dahl’s own analysis actually distinguishes between acts of unprovoked force which were apparently deliberate and those that were “miscalibrated force” – i.e. any harm was accidental.