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How You Hold a Baby May Say Something About Your Personality

New research on the differences between left and right-cradlers.

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Here's a question: If 90 percent of people are right-handed (which they are), why do the majority of women prefer to hold their baby on their left side? The obvious answer is that left-side cradling frees up a woman's dominant (right) hand to perform other tasks. After all, every parent knows the importance of multitasking with little children. It turns out, however, that handedness has nothing to do with it: Right and left-handed parents are equally likely to prefer left-side cradling.

The question of why women default to their left side when cradling an infant has puzzled evolutionary and developmental psychologists for decades. But a new study appearing in the journal Evolutionary Psychology may bring us one step closer to the answer.

A team of psychologists at the University G. d’Annunzio of Chieti-Pescara in Italy designed an experiment to test whether women who cradled their baby on their left side were more likely to display a secure attachment style. Remember that attachment styles come in two forms—secure and insecure. People with secure attachment styles have an easier time establishing and maintaining constructive, close relationships (most likely because they experienced healthy and stable interpersonal relationships growing up). People with insecure attachment styles, on the other hand, find it difficult to maintain healthy interpersonal connections.

The researchers hypothesized an association between left-cradling and secure attachments based on previous research showing how left-cradling nurtures an optimal emotional connection between mother and child. This, some scholars suggest, is likely due to the hemispheric specialization in our brains. Left-cradling promotes a more natural "right brain-to-right brain communication." And it is our right brain that seems to be the dominant hemisphere for social attachment and connection (especially in infancy and early childhood).

To test this hypothesis, the researchers recruited 288 females ranging in age from 18 to 38 to take part in a short study. Participants were asked to pick up and cradle a life-like doll six times for a period of 10 seconds. The doll was positioned differently each time participants picked it up to avoid any experimental bias. The researchers monitored the direction of the doll during each cradle and classified participants as left or right cradlers if they showed a consistent preference to one side.

After the cradling exercise, participants completed two surveys. First, they filled out the Parental Bonding Instrument (PBI). The PBI is a 50-item scale that measures a person's perception of their relationship with their parents during their first 16 years of life. Second, participants filled out the Experience in Close Relationships (ECR) scale. The ECR measures attachment security in romantic relationships.

What did they learn? First, they replicated the finding that women tend to prefer left-cradling. In their sample, 50 percent of participants cradled on their left side, 34 percent cradled on their right side, and 16 percent showed no preference for cradling on one side or the other.

Critical to their hypothesis, the researchers then tested whether left-side cradlers showed more positive interpersonal attachments, as measured by the PBI and ECR. Interestingly, they found that they did. Left-side cradlers tended to have more positive attachment styles with their mothers as well as their romantic partners. The researchers write, "Positive attachment styles to the mother or the romantic partner [...] predicted a higher prevalence of left-cradling bias in our sample."

How might this inform the debate surrounding the origin of left-side cradling? The researchers suggest that their results provide confirmation that "left cradling can be considered a typical behavior in humans and right cradling an atypical behavior." Further, they state, "Such preferences might be related to a variety of different factors, such as anxiety, stress, depression, and even attachment style. Dysfunctions in socio-emotional states and attachment styles seem to reduce the typical left-cradling bias, which is nonetheless the predominant pattern also in women with moderate symptoms, and it is plausible that only when dysfunctions are meaningful is the cradling behavior significantly influenced."

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Malatesta, G., Marzoli, D., Piccioni, C., & Tommasi, L. (2019). The Relationship Between the Left-Cradling Bias and Attachment to Parents and Partner. Evolutionary Psychology, 17(2), 1474704919848117.