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Why Carefully Invest Daily in a Child

Responsive child caregiving matters every day of the week

*Primary author is Matthew Fallon

What makes us the parents of our children? Is it the genes that we have passed on to them? But then what about adoptive parents, who, while not the biological parents, have provided all the care for their adopted children that one would expect from a parent? Researchers such as Robin Nelson (2014) suggest that what really determines parenthood is investment. Investment in a child is not only financial, but also (and perhaps more importantly) social, spiritual, and psychological.

Investment includes non-biological caregivers. People other than the child’s biological parents who carry out significant parenting duties for a child are called alloparents. In hunter-gatherer societies alloparenting is the norm. In studies, half the time alloparents are caring for a baby (Ivey, 2000; Morelli et al., 2014). Importantly, children are seen as children of the community rather than just as children of their parents. Elders and experienced parents are invaluable teaching and alloparenting resources for the new parents, who may return the favor by caring for the elders and serving as alloparents for the community’s future children.

While alloparenting by elders isn’t as widespread in industrialized society as in the past, it can still be found in the advice, time, and support offered to new parents by their parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and siblings. Modern alloparenting, as in the past, typically occurs with mother nearby. Imagine a holiday setting with the family: a relative arrives with her infant and everyone wants to take turns holding and playing with the infant, yet mom is always there when the baby begins to cry. This sort of environment allows an infant to become more comfortable away from mom while also developing a secure attachment because mom is always there when she is needed to calm the infant.

However, many babies spend a great deal of time away from their mothers. As of 2005, 53.8% of American mothers with children under the age of 1 participate in the labor force (, so many of these mothers send their infants to daycare (Cohany & Sok, 2007). A daycare setting differs greatly from ideal settings with parents and alloparents:

  • Mother is not accessible in a daycare setting
  • Infants in need of care far outnumber available caregivers
  • There is much less physical contact (touching, holding, carrying) with caregivers
  • Daycare children may not have secure attachment to the daycaregivers

Differences such as these can have lasting negative effects on children. For example, Dmitreva, Steinberg, and Belsky (2007) found that spending many hours in a child-care center beginning early in life is associated with more aggressive and non-compliant behavior later on. Extensive non-parental care in an infant’s first year of life has been found to be a risk factor for insecure attachment (Belsky and Rovine, 1988). In turn, infants with avoidant-insecure attachment who spend significant time in a daycare-style setting express more negative, affect, are less focused on play objects (a sign of independence), and are more likely to be distressed when reuniting with mother (Belsky and Braungart, 1991).

In other words, when infants are placed in environments without their mother and close alloparents, it can have adverse effects on that infant’s development. Alternatives to infant daycare are out there. These allow an infant to have more personal attention from close adults:


Belsky, J., & Braungart, J. M. (1991). Are insecure-avoidant infants with extensive day-care experience less stressed by and more independent in the strange situation? Child Development, 62, 567-571.

Belsky, J., & Rovine, M. J. (1988). Nonmaternal care in the first year of life and the security of infant-parent attachment. Child Development, 59, 157-167.

Cohany, S. R., & Sok, E. (2007). Trends in labor force participation of married mothers of infants. Bureau of Labor Statistics Monthly Labor Review, 9-16.

Dmitreva, J., Steinberg, L., & Belsky, J. (2007). Child-care history classroom composition, and children’s functioning in kindergarten. Psychological Science, 18, 1032-1039.

Ivey, P.K. (2000). Cooperative reproduction in ituri forest hunter-gatherers: Who cares for efe infants? Current Anthropology, 41(5), 856-866.

Morelli, G., Ivey Henry, & Foerster, S. (2014). Relationships and Resource Uncertainty: Cooperative Development of Efe Hunter-Gatherer Infants and Toddlers, (2014), In D. Narvaez, K. Valentino, A. Fuentes, J. McKenna, & P. Gray, Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: Culture, Childrearing and Social Wellbeing, 69-103 New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, R. (September 2014). What kin counts? Child growth & development in Jamaica. Pathways to Child Flourishing Conference. University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.


1. Kindness in Kids and the Nature-Nurture Debate (Dr. Sarina Saturn)

2. Why Synchronize and Bond With Your Children (Dr. Ruth Feldman)

3. “I want it—now!” How Children Learn Self-Control (Dr. Julie Braungart-Rieker)

4. Why Kids Should Be Protected from Toxic Stress (Dr. Bruce Perry)

5. “Mr. Mom” The Old Normal (Dr. Lee Gettler)

6. Why Dad’s “Talk” is Important (Dr. Holly Brophy-Herb)

7. Conflict in the Family: Why Mom and Dad Should Say “Sorry” (Dr. Mark Cummings)

8. Domination or Partnership? How Does Your Family Stack Up? (Dr. Riane Eisler)

9. Why Carefully Invest Daily in a Child (Dr. Robin Nelson)

*Posts are based on talks presented at the Pathways to Child Flourishing conference, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.

ALSO SEE: What is Child Flourishing?



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When I write about human nature, I use the 99% of human genus history as a baseline. That is the context of small-band hunter-gatherers. These are “immediate-return” societies with few possessions who migrate and forage. They have no hierarchy or coercion and value generosity and sharing. They exhibit both high autonomy and high commitment to the group. They have high social wellbeing. See comparison between dominant Western culture and this evolved heritage in my article (you can download from my website):

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99 Percent—Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672). New York: Oxford University Press.

When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).

The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch early, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship with multi-aged playmates, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and soothing perinatal experiences.

All EDN characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky and must be supported with longitudinal data looking at wellbeing in children and adults. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.

My research laboratory has documented the importance of the EDN for child wellbeing and moral development with more papers in the works see (my Website to download papers):

Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal Effects of Caregiving Practices on Early Childhood Psychosocial Development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L. (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127.

Also see these books for selected reviews:

Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Oxford University Press)

Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution (Oxford University Press)

Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom (W.W. Norton)