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The cultural context of infant caregiving.

To be prepared for the 21st century, early childhood teacher educators, educators of child care personnel, and early childhood practitioners need an expanded conceptualization of infant caregiving. Instead of preaching "universals" exclusively, cultural relativism should be an equally strong focus when preparing practitioners to work in multiple settings (e.g., early intervention programs, parent-infant centers, parent education programs, infant group care and family child care).

Significance of Culture in Caregiving

Teaching about the cultural context is critical in infant care for two reasons. First, the caregiver is a vital influence on infants' ongoing socialization and their personality development. Research indicates enormous cultural variations characterize infant caregiving in developing countries, as well as in industrial countries such as the United States (Abbott, 1992; Bhavnagri, 1986; Field, Sostek, Vietze & Leiderman, 1981; Leiderman, Tulkin & Rosenfeld, 1977). Since the 1970s, immigrants to the United States have been mostly from Asia, Latin America and the Middle East (Jackson, 1980; Kitano & Daniel, 1988). They represent greater ethnic, racial and socioeconomic diversity than immigrants from earlier areas, who were primarily European (Grant, 1995). Therefore, their caregiving practices are usually very different than the prevalent Euro-American practices (Lieberman, 1995).

Recent empirically developed models on immigrant acculturation (e.g., Garza & Gallegos, 1985; Hareven, 1982; Rueschenberg & Buriel, 1989) suggest that immigrant families do not simply shed old values for new ones, as accepted previously (e.g., Gordon, 1964; Handlin, 1951); rather, they selectively maintain some of their old values and practices, modify some, and alter others. As a result, these immigrants flexibly operate in at least two cultures. Additionally, these new models view the acculturation as a bi-directional process in which the new immigrants modify the mainstream culture, and at the same time individuals in the mainstream culture also change to effectively adjust the immigrants' ways (Patel, Power & Bhavnagri, 1996).

Given this large influx of non-European immigrants who are undergoing rapid but selective acculturation and the non-immigrants also undergoing adjustments, we need to retool early childhood training. Well-intentioned professionals armed with child development research are increasingly baffled by new immigrant parents' very different practices, belief systems, perceptions of their children's capabilities, goals for child rearing, world views and life experiences. Therefore, we need to prepare child care professionals to face these challenges.

Second, a dramatic change affecting infants in the United States further necessitates cultural awareness. Whereas in 1977 only 32 percent of the mothers of infants were employed, the figure increased to 48 percent by 1985 (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 1996). Currently, more than 50 percent of mothers with infants are in the workforce (Hofferth, Bray field, Deitch & Holcomb, 1991). It is estimated that 278,000 infants and 791,000 toddlers were in child care arrangements in 1988 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992). Institutional group child care is growing, of which infant care is the fastest growing segment (Gonzalez-Mena, 1997). By 1990, more than 50 percent of infants under 12 months were being cared for by adults other than their mothers (e.g., a relative, baby sitter, nanny, family child care provider, or staff in center-based care).

It would be best for these multiple caregivers to work in unison, thereby promoting families' resiliency (Lynch, Fulcher & Ayala, 1996). This coordinated approach can occur when all caregivers understand, respect and support each others' efforts, share similar goals and beliefs on infant rearing, and perceive infants' abilities in a similar manner. That is not always the situation, however, especially when multiple caregivers are from different cultures. When professionals do offer culturally consistent caregiving, conflicts and culturally assaultive approaches are minimized (Gonzalez-Mena, 1992, 1995). Therefore, we need to prepare professionals for culturally consistent caregiving and empower them to communicate effectively with each other (Anderson & Fenichel, 1989; Phillips, 1995).

Given the above rationale, this article asks professionals first to question the universality of all child development theory and research. Next, it asks readers to reflect on sleep-time practices from a comparative child development perspective. This example will help us reexamine our view of "appropriate," "normal" and/or "best practices." Finally, the authors will recommend strategies to facilitate a paradigm shift from a universal to a cultural view of child development and care.

Questioning the Universality of Child Development Theory and Research

Early childhood professionals should be fully cognizant that the generally understood universals (e.g., "developmental tasks," "developmental milestones," and "effective," "optimal" or "best practices") in child development are actually based on an extremely small sample of the world's population. The data for these universal determinations come mainly from the Western world, and principally from middle-class people of European extraction (Levine, 1989; Werner, 1979). Furthermore, this Western research is predominantly from the United States. Lozoff (1977) states that the children studied in the context of modern industrialized societies, such as the United States or Europe, are a select group that is not representative of most other cultures and during most of human history.

New (1994) reports that only 9.3 percent of the studies published in Child Development between 1986 to 1990 (i.e., the second half of the International Decade of the Child) were studies on culturally and linguistically diverse populations outside the United States. Of these limited studies, still fewer of them explicitly focused on culture in their research designs or provided ethnographic background material for examining the results. Additionally, less than 3 percent of the studies reported focused on children developing in cultures outside the United States.

Bornstein (1991) states that ". . . it is a truism of contemporary psychological study that the cultural contexts in which children are reared constitute central, yet often neglected, factors in developmental study" (p. 3). Developmental psychologists are just starting to address this gap, as evidenced by the growing research in comparative child development (e.g., Bornstein, 1991; Field, Sostek, Vietze & Leiderman, 1981; Munroe & Munroe, 1975; Rogoff, Mistry, Goncu & Mosier, 1993; Wagner & Stevenson, 1982; Whiting & Edwards, 1988).

Comparative child developmental research provides a unique opportunity to: 1) expand the range of normal behavior, 2) raise awareness of how culture contributes divergent pathways to children's development, 3) test specific social science hypotheses, 4) generate new hypotheses, 5) test the generalizability of child development theories, 6) integrate multiple research methodologies and disciplines, 7) develop effective policies for international aid and 8) force us to reflect on our beliefs and practices regarding optimal and normative child development (Bornstein, 1991; Harkness, 1980; Hopkins, 1989; Jahoda, 1986; Levine, 1989; New, 1993, 1994; Rogoff & Morelli, 1989).

Given the above arguments, how can early childhood professionals mobilize themselves to challenge their assumptions on "universal" child development principles and practices? According to Dewey (1933), individuals should be encouraged to give active, persistent and careful consideration to any supposed form of knowledge or beliefs in light of the grounds that support it and the conclusions that are drawn from it. He defines this process as reflective thinking, and recommends it for solving real-life problems.

Let us, therefore, reflect on one infant caregiving practice - namely, sleep-time routine. According to Ferber (1985, 1986), sleeping is an issue of great concern and a "real problem," even more than feeding and toilet training. At least half of all concerns that American parents raise with their pediatricians involve their children's sleeping habits.

Cultural Caregiving on Sleeping Routines

Caregivers need to reflect upon the following cultural issues related to sleeping routines:

1. Early childhood professionals need to realize that while mothers and infants sleeping together may be considered "abnormal" by many in the United States, it has been a common and normal practice in most other societies. Barry and Paxson (1971) analyzed data from 169 societies and found that none of them practiced putting an infant in a separate room to sleep. Whiting, Kluckhohn and Anthony (1958) reported that out of their sample of 56 world societies, only five had sleeping arrangements similar to those of U.S. Americans, where, typically, parents share a bed and the baby sleeps alone. Their study revealed that less than 10 percent of the ethnography of societies they surveyed have infants sleep in a crib or cradle. In other countries, even when the infant has a cradle or cot, it is generally placed within easy reach of the mother's bed. Cultures that practice cosleeping include both highly technological and less technological communities (Morelli, Rogoff, Oppenheim & Goldsmith, 1992). Only in Western societies, notably in the middle class of the U.S., do infants have bedrooms of their own (Whiting & Edwards, 1988).

2. Professionals need to recognize that sleeping arrangements are strongly mandated by value-laden cultural customs, and upheld by elders or "expert" specialists such as pediatricians or psychologists. Frequently, nationally known American pediatricians who are also specialists on parenting (e.g., Brazelton, 1978, 1979, 1989; Ferber, 1985; Spock, 1968, 1984) discourage the practice of mothers and infants sleeping together. Spock and Rothenberg (1992) state, "I think it's a sensible rule not to take a child into the parents' bed for any reason" (p. 213). Brazelton (1989) recommends, "A child shouldn't fall asleep in her parent's arms; if she does, then the parents have made themselves part of the child's sleep rituals" (p. 69). Ferber (1985) advises, "Sleeping alone is an important part of [the child's] learning to be able to separate from you without anxiety and to see himself as an independent individual" (p. 39). Eighty-four percent of the pediatricians surveyed in Cleveland asserted that an infant should never sleep with his or her parents (Lozoff, Wolf & Davis, 1984). At one time, almost all U.S. hospitals separated the mother from the child at birth. Although neonates in hospitals often stay with their mothers, they still do not share the same bed; instead, they have their own crib.

Trevathan and McKenna (1994) advise, "It is important for parents to know that when pediatricians give advice as to where their infants and children should sleep, they are dispensing cultural judgments and not advice based in scientific findings" (p. 101). To foster "optimal" development some cultures put a high value on promoting individuality (e.g., the United States), while other cultures place greater value on relating to others (e.g., Japan) (Caudill & Plath, 1966; Kawasaki, Nugent, Miyashita, Miyahara & Brazelton, 1994; Levine, 1989; Rogoff, 1990). Such cultures believe that we need to attend to an infant's need for dependency by allowing a child to sleep with the mother, and thereby creating a secure base from which later independence, autonomy and exploration can grow. Gonzalez-Mena (1991) states that, "The word individual is downplayed in some cultures, and the word private is practically nonexistent" (p. 31).

3. Early childhood educators need to be informed of the consequences of parents and infants sleeping in the same bed, so that they can confidently discuss this practice with parents. The proponents of this practice state that infants are vulnerable, immature and poorly regulated. Therefore, human contact during sleep helps infants regulate their body temperature and maintain homeostasis. Research also indicates that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is infrequent in cultures that accept cosleeping (Gantley, Davies & Murcett, 1993; McKenna & Mosko, 1993). Moreover, studies show that mother-infant states of sleep are synchronized when they sleep together (McKenna, Mosko, Dungy & McAninch, 1990). Keefe (1987) also reports that newborns who slept in the same room as their parents slept more quietly and cried less compared to those who slept in a separate nursery room. Additionally, sleeping together is more convenient and efficient for breastfeeding. Lastly, children are less likely to need transitional objects (e.g., "security" blankets, teddy bears) as psychological substitutes for human contact when parents cosleep and have frequent daytime contacts (Anders & Taylor, 1994).

Early childhood educators also need to be aware of opposing views on the practice. Opponents believe it interferes with the child's independence, intrudes into parental privacy, sexually arouses the oedipal child, and causes more sleep problems (Wolf, Lozoff, Latz & Paludetto, 1996). Anders and Taylor (1994) report that since most child development literature and professional advice is on how to help the baby sleep through the night, parents have those expectations, and deviations from that practice are viewed as "problems." Nighttime awakenings, however, are not viewed as a "problem" in those cultures where parents are socialized to expect it.

4. Early childhood educators who want to make "developmentally appropriate" decisions need to reflect on the infant's "development" in relation to other primates' development (i.e., comparative child development from an evolutionary perspective) to determine what is "appropriate." Trevathan and McKenna (1994) recommend that instead of expecting infants to be independent, caregivers need to accept infants as what they actually are - namely, the least neurologically mature of all mammals at birth. Consequently, human infants have to rely far more on their caregivers for their regulation and survival than infants of other mammalian species. To provide this continuous care all primate adults sleep with their infants, with the exception of human infants, who need the most care. Over centuries, human infants have adapted to sleeping with their mothers, and only recently, in an evolutionary sense, has this adaptive mechanism been disrupted. Even monkey infants show significant detrimental effects (e.g., decrease in body temperature, release of stress hormones, cardiac arrhythmias, sleep disturbances and compromised immune systems) when separated from their mother for only three hours. Therefore, an evolutionist would consider it "developmentally inappropriate" to expect infants to sleep separately from their mothers.

5. Early childhood educators should not sanctimoniously judge sleeping apart as a totally unacceptable practice, but instead understand the historical roots of this practice in Western cultures. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, some European countries enacted laws requiring infants to sleep separately from parents, ostensibly in order to prevent suffocation. In reality, these laws were a response to infanticide trends. Parents often killed their children because of food shortages, and then would claim to have accidentally roiled over onto the infant during sleep. Around the same time, the husband-wife bond became more prominent than the parent-child bond. The notion of romantic love gained popularity, contributing to the trend for separate sleeping arrangements for parents and children. Additionally, churches supported separate sleeping, to maintain children's purity (Trevathan & McKenna, 1994).

The cultural development of mother and infant sleeping together also needs to be understood. Levine (1977) explains that infant mortality rates were high in all cultures at one time. Therefore, the parent's overriding goal and concern was the child's survival, which was expressed by keeping the infant in close proximity. This continuous surveillance of the infant's well-being resulted in the mother and infant sleeping together. Over time, this effective survival strategy became encoded as a customary practice within a culture, and was socially transmitted from one generation to the next.

6. When faced with conflicting values, professionals need to reflect and arrive at creative solutions that are in the child's best interests. At one child care center where each infant had a crib, for example, a baby who had just arrived from Southeast Asia protested mightily at naptime. The staff discovered that he had never slept apart from his mother and had never even seen a crib. His distress was significant. Noting that he could only go to sleep in the noisy playroom, the staff went along with his inclination. A licensing worker objected to the arrangement after finding the infant asleep on a cushion in the corner, citing a law that read, "each child has the right to quiet undisturbed sleep." She interpreted this regulation to mean that babies must sleep in cribs in a special dark and quiet room, apart from the playroom. Twardosz, Cataldo and Risley's (1974) found, however, that infants can sleep as well in a bright, noisy, common play and sleep room as they can in a darkened, quiet and separate sleep area. The head teacher was able to convince the licensing worker that the only way this particular child could get quiet, undisturbed rest was in the midst of people, and thus the licensing law was not violated. The center was granted a waiver for this child! Early childhood professionals can be helped by discussing such creative resolutions.

7. When sharing the above-mentioned cross-cultural, evolutionary, historical and medical research perspectives, we need to help students reflect on their own practices. Reflection will help students understand that what they may have considered "abnormal" and "inappropriate" may be considered "normal" and "appropriate" by others. This awareness itself often makes students feel uncomfortable and generates emotional dissonance. For example, some students reported that they "disobeyed" their doctor's advice and had their baby in bed with them for a very long time, but did not tell others because they felt guilty. They are relieved to know of great variations in infant care. Others view these multidisciplinary research perspectives as eye openers, yet are still uncomfortable in directly questioning their long-held beliefs on infant rearing.

The following are some questions to prompt students' reflection: What if a practice is culturally relevant but somewhat developmentally inappropriate? Where does one draw a line? What cultural practices are benign to infants' development and what practices are unquestionably harmful? What is the criteria and who makes this criteria? How are parents' practices adaptive to the original culture? How adaptive are they to current culture? Should they be practiced exactly as before, or should they be modified? Who should decide? How does one reconcile what one strongly believes in, based on research, with what parents believe, especially when the gap between the two is enormous? Are we acting responsibly and sensitively by saying nothing to parents when we disagree with them, or are we abdicating our responsibilities? How can we be sensitive to differing practices and yet be professionals and share our expertise? On what issues must one take a stand, and which ones must we concede as crucial to the parent's and child's reality?


Overall, the authors recommend including culture as an integral component of all relevant courses (e.g., parent education, family life education, child development, infant child care, developmentally appropriate curriculum). Multicultural early childhood education courses, which typically and almost exclusively focus on cultures that influence the curriculum during formal schooling, should also reflect how different cultures influence socialization practices in infant rearing. Finally, early childhood faculty should broaden their personal definition of multicultural education to readily incorporate this recommendation.

We recommend including in the coursework comparative developmental data generated by many disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, medicine, social work, history and linguistics, as well as child development. Ethology and attachment theory, for example, can be used to explain Konner's work (1977) regarding significant changes in infant rearing over time; population psychology to explain Levine's work (1977) on parental goals in infant rearing; and psychocultural theory to explain the Whitings's world famous studies on child rearing in six cultures (Whiting, 1963; Whiting, 1977). Also noteworthy are Brofenbrenner's (1979) ecological theory, Triandris's (1979) cross-cultural model and Lester and Brazelton's (1982) biosocial model (see Bhavnagri, 1986, for details on these models). Discussions on Vygotsky's (1978) cultural-historical theory (Wertsch & Tulviste, 1992) as applied by Luria (1976) and Rogoff (e.g., Rogoff, 1990; Rogoff, Malkin & Gilbride, 1984; Rogoff, Mistry, Goncu & Mosier, 1993) would explain the cultural context of infant caregiving. Readings from some of the sources cited here and from journals such as Anthropology and Education Quarterly and OMEP-International Journal of Early Childhood would help students.

The authors earlier recommended a reflective approach to deconstruct the universality of child development theories. This same reflective and dialectic approach is an effective tool for reconstructing culture's contribution to child development. Instead of prescriptively "pouring in" knowledge, we should encourage the co-construction of knowledge on cultural relativism by facilitating student-teacher and student-peer dialogues. Schon (1987) believes that such "reflection-on-action" and "reflection-in-action" helps students to confront unique situations in the real world of practice, when they feel uncertain and have value conflicts. Infant-rearing issues are fettered with uncertainties, value conflicts, and moral and ethical dilemmas for students to reflect upon and question. Finally, reflection could permit students to co-construct a position that is truly accepting of divergent practices.

In addition, when teacher educators use this reflective and dialectical approach, they empower their students to use this same approach with parents of the infants in their care. When students use reflective practices with parents, they empower parents to reflect on their own cultural practices in an enlightened manner and to consider multiple options in infant rearing. Teacher educators should also offer well-guided learning experiences, in which students frequently, meaningfully and reflectively interact with parents of diverse cultures. This practice will reduce students' apprehensions, help them confront their preconceived belief systems about diverse families and offer continuity between the center and home care (Chang & Pulido, 1994; Harry, Torguson, Katkavich & Guerrero, 1993; Whaley & Swadener, 1990). In conclusion, such reflections are necessary for both professionals and parents if they are to work together as a team in the best interests of the child.


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Whiting, J. W. M. (1977). A model of psychocultural research. In P. Leiderman, S. Tulkin, & A. Rosenfeld (Eds.), Culture and infancy: Variations in the human experience (pp. 29-48). New York: Academic Press.

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Navaz Peshotan Bhavnagri is Professor, Early Childhood Education, Wayne State University, Detroit.

Janet Gonzalez-Mena is Professor, Napa Valley College, Napa, California.
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Author:Gonzalez-Mena, Janet
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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