Bringing up a baby can be a tough and lonely job. Here's a solution: alloparents
A squishy, slippery blob that cries often. Sometimes very often. That's how you – and everyone of us – began our lives.
Homo sapien babies are born incredibly needy. They have little to no motor coordination. They can't cling to their mothers. And many of them even have trouble breastfeeding. They require an enormous amount of attention, care and nurturing.
"Even the most adorable, sweet, easy babies are a ton of work," says psychologist Kathryn Humphreys at Vanderbilt University.
In Western societies, much of the responsibility often falls to one person. In many instances, that's the mother, who must muster the patience and sensitivity to care for an infant. And a lot of time she's working in isolation, says evolutionary anthropologist Gul Deniz Salali, who's at the University College London. "I just had a baby 9 months ago, and it's been really lonely."
"There are these narratives [in Western society], that mothers should just know how to look after children and be able to do it [alone]," says Chaudhary, who's at Cambridge University.
But human parents probably aren't psychologically adapted for this isolation, a new study with a group of hunter-gatherers in the Congo suggests. A "mismatch" likely exists between the conditions in which humans evolved to care for babies and the situation many parents find themselves in today, says Salali, who contributed to the study.
Together with a handful of previous studies, this new one suggests that for the vast majority of human history, mothers had a huge amount of help caring for infants – and even a lot of support with toddlers as well.
We're not talking about just an extra hand on the weekends. We're talking about more than a dozen people for daily help with all sorts of tasks – cleaning a child, holding them, keeping an eye on them and soothing them when they cry. Scientists call these helpers "alloparents." The prefix "allo" derives from the Greek word for "other." So these helpers are literally "other parents."
The study, published in Developmental Psychology, took place among a group of people called Mbendjele. They live in the northern rainforests of the Republic of Congo and acquire their food primarily by foraging, hunting and fishing. "Sometimes they also make campsites along logging roads because they trade with farmers. They exchange products from the forest for agricultural products, alcohol and cigarettes," Salali says.
In the study, evolutionary anthropologist Nikhil Chaudhary closely followed 18 young children from birth to age 4. He observed each child separately for a total of 12 hours. Every 20 seconds, he wrote down a description of who was taking care of the child and what they were doing. Were they feeding, carrying or soothing the child? He also noted the state of the child. Were they sleeping or crying?
"So you're just writing down all that information constantly," he says.
Chaudhary and Salali analyzed all the data and found striking patterns. "The numbers were really quite amazing," Chaudhary says. "Each child had about 15 to 20 caregivers, but in terms of people providing hands-on care, the number was lower."
On average, the children had eight people, other than their mothers, giving regular hands-on care, such as bathing, feeding and loving them with kisses, hugs and stroking. The youngsters had two to three other people responding to their crying.
And these alloparents responded quickly. Chaudhary documented a total of about 220 bouts of crying that didn't resolve quickly. Half the time, these caregivers responded within 10 seconds. And for 90% of the crying bouts help arrived within 25 seconds.
Altogether, the alloparents provided about 36% of the close care for babies. Fathers provided another 6% and mothers provided the rest — about 60%. "The moms just have so much support," says UCL's Gul Deniz Salali. "When I became a mom, I had to pay somebody to teach me how to breastfeed. It was so difficult at the beginning, and I was on the verge of depression, really. So I do think that this allocare is really helpful."
The study was quite small, with only 18 children, Kathryn Humphreys at Vanderbilt notes. So it's hard to draw generalizations for the full community in Congo.
"However, they studied the children in a way that allowed them to really understand what the children's day-to-day life is like, which is important," she adds. "That's also quite different from most research on early caregiving relationships, in which researchers usually study a child with one caregiver – typically mom – in the lab for ten minutes of free play time."
The findings also support a handful of similar studies with hunter-gatherer communities, looking at how much support new moms receive from members of the community. For example, one study, published in 2021, quantified alloparenting for Agta children from birth to age 6. Agta live in the northeastern part of the Philippines and obtain their food primarily by spearfishing in rivers and oceans, along with foraging and hunting. The researchers found that, on average, alloparents provided nearly three-quarters of the care for babies under age 2, and nearly 80% of care for children ages 2 to 6.
Hunter-gatherer communities are not the only ones to rely on – and value – alloparents. Studies on a variety of cultures worldwide show that new mothers almost always have a system of care around them, says Emily Emmott, who's also at the University College London but wasn't involved in the study. "And it's often a system of complex care that includes people beyond the partner and the family members. The whole community is helping."
Altogether the research across cultures suggests that human parents are psychologically adapted to raise children cooperatively, not in isolation.
Yet in Western culture, many times the mother alone is expected – or even required – to provide this incredibly intensive parenting, Emmott says. "There's this idea that mothering is so important. And there's lots and lots of research on sensitive parenting by the mother."
So, as the paper puts it, there's a "mismatch" between how parents are primed evolutionarily to take care of babies and how they're expected to do it, or even how they end up doing a portion of it. This mismatch and isolation may be a key reason for high rates of postpartum depression in the U.S. and Europe, several of the researchers point out.
"It's almost certainly true that we weren't really adapted to raise children as a single parent or just as two-parent families," says developmental psychologist Pasco Fearon at the University of Cambridge, who wasn't involved with the study. "There's clear evidence that social support is really important for preventing depression."
And thus, the research points to a clear way of reducing postpartum depression, Fearon says: "Let's try to build a society and enact policies that provide parents with more social support," he says. "It's sort of obvious, but it's not so easy to do."
So we end up with a second mismatch, beyond the evolutionary one, says UCL's Emily Emmott. "There's a kind of societal mismatch," she says, between how our society is set up to raise young children and what caretakers actually need to do."
"You need a lot of support when you have a baby, but the laws don't reflect that, and the child-care system available doesn't reflect that," Emmott says.
So many primary caregivers end up relying largely on one other person: their partner.
"Some women don't have a partner," she adds. "And what do you do when your partner needs to go to work? What are you supposed to do? So I think many women are put in this impossible situation. They're set up to fail."
And so, she says, it's not surprising that many new parents feel depressed. "Because, a lot of the time, you are in a quite depressing situation."
There's no shame in getting help with a baby, the researchers interviewed for this article point out. "We need to cooperate," Emmott adds. "It's just the way we've evolved."
Your turn: Tell us a time when an alloparent came to the rescue
Readers who are parents: Can you recall a time when you faced a tough time in child rearing — and had a perhaps unexpected and definitely welcome moment when an "alloparent" — a caregiver from your family or community — came to the rescue? Share your story and we may publish it in a future post. You can email it to firstname.lastname@example.org with "alloparents" in the subject line. Please include your name, location and the best way to contact you. Please sent in your response by Friday, December 8.
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