What baby needs

Fresh from the lab: Prof Kim Bard on social interaction in infant chimpanzee.

It is hard to select what to report from the data-packed seminar we just heard Prof Kim Bard present at the CBCD. She told us about her decades-long work studying how infant chimpanzee develop, and reflecting about what this tells us about human babies and children.

We heard about newborn chimpanzees imitating humans (just like our babies can do, as you probably know, if you have tried out Activity Nr 1 in our free app). We heard about baby chimpanzee really enjoying a good peek-a-boo session (check out Activity Nr 20 of the app to learn about what this simple and much-loved game tells us about social cognition). We heard about little chimpanzees using behaviour such as smiles and mutual gaze (e.g., looking in someone's eyes) to communicate (check out app Activity Nr 21 to learn more about it). And, we heard about how different socialisation rules can change behaviour.

Because we don't have an app activity that tells you a bit more about it, let's have a closer look at those data.

Prof Bard had found that chimpanzee mums and babies don't engage in much eye-contact (on average 17 times per hour). Her Japanese colleagues, however, disagreed with her. In their Kyoto nursery, they observed loads of eye-contact (there is definitely a Japanese theme on #freshfromthelab these days). So they decided to try and figure out what was going on.

They found significantly higher levels of mutual gaze (aka, eye-contact) in a new group of chimpanzees at 1, 2, and 3 months. What's most exciting is that the amount of cradling contact was inversely related to the amount of eye-contact. In other words, more cradling went together with less eye contact. This was the case also when human babies and mother were tested (read the full article here). It is almost as if loads of tactile contact made eye-contact. A bit too much (read the full article here).

It was interesting to hear Prof Bard reflecting on this. Mutual gaze (remember: eye contact) is related to social engagement, joint attention (more about it in Session 2 of our curriculum) and cooperation later on. However, we must be careful when we judge differences in ways of expressing “mutual engagement” (connection with each other) across species and cultures. In other words, a tactile connection may be more appropriate than a visual one in certain cultures, and that's fine. No judgment needed there.

Interestingly, what really had a positive impact on joint attention and cooperation scores was the quality of care they were under (responsive care was associated with more joint attention and cooperation than standard care) and their emotions during testing (happier chimpanzees = more joint attention and cooperation).

At this point, Prof Bard went on to describe the Responsive Care Intervention she designed back in 1996 to support chimpanzees who were raised in nursery settings because their captive mothers were unable to parent them. The method aimed at nurturing motor skills, independence and social skills. The study was done in a way that considered socially acceptable behaviours for adult chimpanzees. It involved 4 hours everyday of nurturing human-chimpanzee interactions during the first year of life.

The results showed that baby chimpanzees were happy to engage in social interaction such as tickle play, grooming, and chase play. Once they had learned to engage in the various social interactions across the first months of life, they began to initiate them, even using gestures, and finally they requested others to join in (read more about it here).

They differed significantly from chimpanzees raised in standard nurseries and were more similar to chimpanzees raised by their mothers. This was evident not only in their behaviour, but also in brain regions such as the putamen and nucleus accumbens.

What might be even more significant for parents of human babies is that responsive care group chimpanzees grew up to show less stereotypical rocking behaviour as adults. Their psychological wellbeing was above average, and they had fewer upper respiratory infections (more on this here).

Of course, we must be careful at drawing implications for child-rearing from studies of a different species, raised in captivity and interacting with humans. However, why not try adopting a way of caring for our babies that is more responsive, nurturing motor skills, independence and social skills?

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