Motor skills don’t happen in isolation, research shows. When your baby begins to roll over, sit, crawl, pull up and walk, it gives her a new view on her world, which changes her perception. However, culture and the environment your baby is being raised in influences her milestones.
Beliefs and attitudes
In a report, entitled Culture Helps Shape When Babies Learn to Walkby Sujata Gupta, psychologist Catherine Tamis-LeMond of New York University shares that, “We engage in practices that fit our needs in our own everyday lives.” She adds that cultures should be viewed within their own context.
Another study, published in Developmental Psychobiology, found that society and culture have a “profound impact on an infant’s movement behaviours.” The researchers, led by Rosa M Angulo-Barroso of the Center for Human Growth and Development, School of Kinesiology, University of Michigan, defined culture as “the social rules, habits, morals and values that characterise the functioning of a population and induce prescribed behavioural patterns.” Angulo-Barroso explains that sociocultural factors, such as national origin, can influence future motor development because beliefs and attitudes may encourage or discourage some form of motor behaviour.
For example, Kipsigis babies in Western Kenya, are encouraged to sit at an early age by placing them in a small hole dug in the ground to support their backs, or blankets are nestled around them. A study on this has shown that as a “likely result” of this cultural practice, these infants may learn to sit earlier than their peers.
Another more recent example is out of Reykjavik, Iceland, published in Frontiers of Psychology, where a swim instructor had babies aged between three and five months old participating in a swimming course, learn to stand independently on a board or hand well in advance of what is considered a normal milestone between the ages of 9 and 11 months.
“Although genetic influences likely play a role, current perspectives of behavioural development recognise the combined influence and interaction of genes and environment, but give priority to the environment in the case of complex behaviours such as motor or emotional responses,” says Angulo-Barroso.
Talking and communication
Researchers are also looking at how culture influences other areas of development linked to motor skills, such as talking and communication.
This is known as a developmental cascade. Eric Walle, a developmental psychologist at the University of California, explains that “When a baby acquires a new way of getting around, the child’s vantage point changes, along with interactions with caregivers and the ability to explore the environment.”
Walle collaborated with researchers from UC Berkeley and East China Normal University to see if this link was specific to culture, age and native language. “In terms of language and culture, you can’t get more different from American English speaking society than urban China. In addition to those distinct differences, Chinese infants typically begin walking about six weeks later than American infants. It provided us with an interesting group for comparison.”
The study, published in Infancy, found that walking infants were better able to speak and understand their native language than crawling infants of the same age. The language differences between crawlers and walkers were similar, and the walking-talking relation was present in both noun and non-noun vocabularies.
Walle explains: “The results show us that learning to talk and understanding the spoken word isn’t tied to the age of the infant, the complexity of his or her native tongue, or cultural norms associated with raising infants. The acts of walking and acquiring language are not independent of each other – they are different biological processes working in concert.”
Walle’s next line of research will be to examine the different processes related to walking and language, such as parent-child interaction, baby imitating the parent or caregiver and infant gaze following.