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Parental Beliefs and Practices Around Early Self-regulation

The Impact of Culture and Immigration

Meléndez, Luisiana MEd

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FAMILIES are the first and arguably the most important vehicle for the transmission of culture, partly because childrearing practices are organized within culturally distinct frameworks. Culture and family mediate both resilience and vulnerability in the development of infants and young children, and support the achievement of particular developmental tasks (Sameroff & Fiese, 2000) that play an important role in the definition of risk and need for intervention (Garcia-Coll & Magnuson, 2000).

Children of immigrant parents represent one of the most rapidly growing groups in the United States (Fuligni & Yoshikawa, 2003), and by 2030, it is expected that immigration and other factors will bring the proportion of children younger than 5 years born to families of European descent to less than 50% (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Between 1990 and 2000, immigration was the source of 41% of the population growth in the United States, with 31 million of foreign-born reported in the 2000 census (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). This trend defines the United States as a pluralistic and rapidly changing society where immigrant families with young children are involved in the reconciliation of the childrearing values of their native and adoptive cultures, a circumstance that may push them to make choices about practices surrounding self-regulatory tasks related to sleep, crying, and reactivity. In immigrant families, these practices may differ from those prevalent in the host society, a mismatch that holds the potential for conflict and increases the need for cultural sensitivity and competence in those working with families with young children.

This article examines the interaction of culture and the parenting practices that support infant self-regulation. Particular attention is given to the implications of this interaction for the development of children in immigrant families, and for the work of practitioners involved with these families and infants.


Culture and child development

During the past decades, child development theorists and practitioners have been paying increasing attention to the impact of culture on developmental outcomes (Bornstein, Tal, & Tamis-LeMonda, 1991; Feng, Harwood, Leyendecker, & Mi, 2001; García-Coll, 1990; Garcìa-Coll & Magnuson, 2000; Goodnow, 1988; Goodnow & Collins, 1990; Lewis, 2000; McCollum, Ree, & Chen, 2000; Nugent, 1994), and an impressive body of literature points out “… the importance of culture as a salient influence on early childhood development” (Shonkoff & Philips, 2000, p. 58). This growing emphasis on culture has led to theoretical and methodological proposals that advocate for developmental research that places practices and their context as the center of its focus (García-Coll et al., 1996; Lewis, 2000; Miller & Goodnow, 1995).

LeVine et al. (1994) propose that cultural models of child care must be studied with particular attention to the normative assumptions about the best developmental outcomes for infants, the strategies for attaining these optimal goals, and the sequences that caregiving behavior is expected to follow. This proposed framework advocates for a view of development where caregiving practices, culture, and parental goals are closely and inextricably connected (Levine et al., 1994). It also posits that the context of the caregiving relationship gives meaning to the tasks and routines that conform it and which, in turn, can be seen as tailored in accordance to particular developmental outcomes (Bornstein et al., 1991; García-Coll, 1990; Greenfield, 1994; Lewis, 2000; Levine et al., 1994; Pomerlau, Malacuit, & Sabatier 1991; Roer-Strier & Rosenthal, 2001). This model contends that caregiving practices occur in ways that facilitate children's adaptive strategies and behaviors as congruent with the broader cultural script (Axia & Weisner, 2002; Roer-Strier & Rosenthal, 2001; Shonkoff & Philips, 2000), but does not ignore the role that individual differences, parents, and infants play in the interpretation and execution of cultural mores (Keller, 2003).

Super and Harkness (1986) consider the ecocultural developmental niche, thought to encompass parental expectations, disciplinary practices, beliefs about gender roles, religious and spiritual values, as well as childrearing goals, as the cornerstone of the understanding of child development. Gaskins (1996) summarizes the importance of placing parental practices and goals within the cultural context where they occur when she declares: “To interpret parents' actions towards and expectations of their children meaningfully, we must first understand their cultural goals as parents” (p. 345).

Accordingly, the childrearing goals of parents can be seen as embedded in the values different groups place on children. In consequence, some of the available literature attempts to establish a connection between cultural beliefs about the nature of the child and caregiving practices. The Yoruba, for example, believe that children symbolize immortality and the cyclic nature of lineage, and are born with character traits that reproduce those of the incarnated ancestor. Therefore, a parent might be advised to use certain childrearing practices versus others to correct an ancestral character weakness (Zeitlin, 1996). On the other hand, for the Nso of Cameroon, children are seen as a signal of divine approval to the continuation of ancestry, a fact that makes Nso parents reluctant to harshly discipline children, as cruelty against the young is punishable by the ancestors (Nsmenang & Lamb, 1995). In contrast, the aspiration of raising children who are modest, patient, and forbearing leads Fulani parents to speak in harsh terms to their children (DeLaoche & Gottlieb, 2000).

However, not only do different cultural groups value different parenting practices but also different values can be assigned to the same practice (Greenfield, 1994). For example, both Japanese and Haitian parents engage in caregiving that includes high responsivity and close physical contact, although they do so for dissimilar reasons. A study that compared the childrearing practices of Québécois, Vietnamese, and Haitian parents residing in Montréal, Pomerlau, et al. (1991) reports that Haitians' perception of infancy as an extremely vulnerable period leads to caregiving practices that include cosleeping, quick responsiveness, and around-the-clock carrying by an adult or an older child. In contrast, the Japanese have been described as characterizing infants as essentially separate beings who need to be drawn into codependent relationships with others (Wolf, Lozoff, Latz, & Paludetto, 1996). This view steers parents toward caregiving practices with high levels of responsiveness and almost noninterrupted physical proximity between Japanese mothers and their babies (Borstein et al., 1991; Shwalb, Shwalb, & Shofi, 1996; Wolf et al., 1996).

Cultural differences in caregiving practices can, thus, be described as far from arbitrary, and in fact appear to shape the specifics of the experiences that parents structure for their children, as well as the developmental implications of these experiences (Gaskins, 1996).

Parental theories about childrearing practices are the result of the dynamic interaction between the cultural reference group, family experiences, individual personality and style, as well as the characteristics and contributions of individual children; all of these elements come together in a way that is believed to support certain developmental goals (Julian, Mckenry, & Mckelvey, 1994; Keller, 2003; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000) and achieve distinctive developmental outcomes (García-Coll, 1990; García-Coll & Magnuson, 2000; Lewis, 2000; McCollum et al., 2000; Roer-Strier & Rosenthal, 2001). The regulation of child development is achieved through a combination of factors that extend across generations and include the particulars inherent to culture and families, as well as to individual parents and children (Sameroff & Fiese, 2000a).

The fact that culture's influence on parental practices greatly depends on the context where the practice takes place (Cocking, 1994) makes it possible for the same practice to take different meanings that may lead to different developmental outcomes (Greenfield, 1994). This has important implications regarding the potential impact of immigration on the caregiving practices believed to mediate and support early self-regulation.

The role of immigration

Immigration is considered an event with profound social, emotional, and economical implications. Fernández, Kelly, and Schaufler (1997) state that “even under auspicious conditions, migration is a jarring experience that pushes individuals and groups to acquire new knowledge as they negotiate survival and adjustment” (p. 31). Moreover, the force and quality of the impact of immigration on children's development is believed to be mediated, among other factors, by the age of the child at time of immigration and the parents' own course of assimilation and acculturation (De León Siantz, 1997; García-Coll & Magnuson, 1997).

The role played by parental immigrant status in such broad aspects as maternal teaching behaviors, parental styles, and attachment has received significant attention from the child development literature (Carlson & Harwood, 2003; Greenfield & Suzuki, 1998; Johnson, Walker, & Rodrìguez, 1996; Lesar, Espinoza, & Díaz, 1996, 1997; Moreno, 1991; Okimoto, 2001; Planos, Zayas, & Busch-Rossnagel, 1995). Much of the research about the impact of immigration on child development has focused on socialization practices, bilingualism, biculturalism, and racial and identity development, with particular emphasis given to issues believed to have the potential to compromise desirable outcomes (De León Siantz, 1997; García-Coll, 1990; García-Coll & Magnuson, 1997; García-Coll & Vásquez García, 1995; Harrison, Wilson, Pine, Chan, & Buriel, 1990; LaFromboise, Coleman, & Gerton, 1993; Waters, 1997; Zayas & Solaris, 1994). It is not rare for immigrant mothers to be labeled as “knowledge deficient” (Fraktman, 1998), and their infants frequently are defined as “at-risk,” although both criteria are often understood and used by practitioners in the vaguest of terms (Fraktman 1998; Roer-Strier & Rosenthal, 2001). Furthermore, their use contributes to the creation of stereotypes, accentuates cultural differences, and leads to interpretations of these differences as deficits (Fraktman, 1998; García-Coll et al., 1996, García-Coll & Magnuson, 2000).

Immigration can imply a need for changes in parenting behaviors and caregiving practices as the result of a complex interaction of factors, including pressure from the host society for immigrant assimilation (García-Coll & Magnuson, 1997; Pomerlau et al., 1991). Thus, immigration challenges parents whose normative ideals of what are desired child-rearing goals can be in a state of flux because of the immigration experience (Roer-Strier & Rosenthal, 2001). There is significant likelihood of cultural strife when parents are expected to conform to behaviors that might be in sharp contrast with those upheld in their country of origin. Small (1998) invites us to:

“Imagine the Cambodian woman new to America who is told by her physician to make sure that the baby sleeps in his own bed. Or imagine the Guatemalan woman who is confused by all the toys her new culture says she must buy for her baby's happiness. Or what about the British woman who looks in disdain at the Nigerian woman breastfeeding in public” (p. 68).

The impact of immigration on child development goals and caregiving practices requires further systematic and rigorous research. Nevertheless, the available literature highlights the complex and intricate interconnections between culture and child development, and leads us to assume that the relationship between immigration, developmental outcomes, and the caregiving tasks that mediate these outcomes is of paramount importance.


A significant amount of the research around the relationship between developmental outcomes and caregiving practices has looked at the different ways parents feed, soothe, and help their children establish sleep routines (Shonkoff & Philips, 2000). As these are intrinsically related to the infants' achievement of self-regulation (Sameroff & Fiese, 2000b; Shonkoff & Philips, 2000), this section looks at ways culture and parenting practices mediate this important developmental task. Chisholm (1991) offers a powerful example of the complex interconnections between parenting practices, broader cultural goals, and self-regulatory capacity, as illustrated by the fact that the cradleboard used by the Navajo is believed to produce lower reactivity states, which in turn facilitate the mother's ability to tend to other communal responsibilities without separating from her baby.

Infant self-regulation has been defined as the processes that modulate the reactivity of the infant as measured in terms of time and intensity (Lamb, Borstein, & Teti, 2002). Self-regulatory capacities involve complex connections between various neurophysiological systems (Porges, 1996, 2001), and are believed to have genetic or constitutional origins (Lamb et al., 2002). Their primary function appears to be to move infants toward physiological homeostasis during the first months of life, including the modulation of physical states such sleep/wake, hunger/satiety cycles, self-calming, and learning to soothe and settle once basic needs are met (Anders, Goodin-Jones, & Sadeh, 2000; Barr, 1999; Barton & Robin, 2000; Benoit, 2000; Gray, Miller, Phillips, & Blass, 2000; Lamb et al., 2002; Papoušek, 2000; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Although self-regulation has definite neurobiological underpinnings, caregiving behavior such as holding, rocking, or redirecting infants' gaze or attention at times of distress may contribute to the development of certain parts of the brain as emergent control areas for negative emotion and reactivity (Posner & Rothbart, 2000).

Acquisition of self-regulation by infants represents an important transition, from regulation that was accomplished in concert with the mother when the child was in-utero to regulation that depends primarily on the dynamic reciprocity between the child's ability to signal its needs and the availability of responsive caregivers (Benham, 2000; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Sameroff and Fiese (2000b) describe a regulatory model that encompasses 3 levels of coregulatory efforts between parents and infants: macroregulations, defined as the modal forms of regulation within the cultural code such as, for example, beliefs and practices about on-demand feeding; miniregulations, described as codes particular to the family and thought to include how particular caregivers interpret and implement these general cultural mandates, and, therefore, potentially explaining family-to-family variations about on-demand feeding; and microregulations, which are played at the individual level with differences in personality and temperament. The infant's own self-regulatory capacities, thus, have a salient function in how on-demand feeding may play out in a particular family with a particular infant.

Cultural variations of the practices that support regulation of day-night rhythms and crying have been the target of considerable attention in the child development literature (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000), with particular consideration given to cosleeping and its relationship to continuous caregiving (DeLoache & Gottlieb, 2000; Greenfield & Suzuki, 1998; Small, 1998). In many industrialized countries, including the United States, significant effort is directed toward establishing regular sleep routines for infants, with parents often seeking the advice of pediatricians and other professionals to ensure that their infants promptly acquire the habit of sleeping through the night (Greenfield & Suzuki, 1998; Small, 1998). In contrast, having very young babies sleep with one or both parents is the prevalent practice in more than half of the nonindustrialized countries of the world (Greenfield & Suzuki, 1998; Small, 1998), and also in some of the non-Western countries such as Japan (Bornstein et al., 1991; DeLoache & Gottlieb, 2000; Shwalb et al., 1996).

In many of these cultures, cosleeping is believed to support babies' self-regulatory efforts, particularly those related to breathing and control of temperature and heart rate, which in turn are thought to promote safer sleeping (Small, 1998). Cosleeping is also linked to on-demand feeding and comforting (DeLoache & Gottlieb, 2000; Gaskins, 1996; Greenfield & Suzuki, 1998; Levine et al., 1994; Small, 1998; Wolf et al., 1996), a caregiving practice that has been interpreted as embedded in parenting beliefs and values that stress interdependence rather than independence (Greenfield, 1994; Keller, 2003). It is assumed that cultures that subscribe to interdependent scripts rely more on socialization strategies and continuous caregiving practices that support modes of caregiver-child contact and communication aimed at enhancing interdependent and communal values (Carlson & Harwood, 2003; Greenfield, 1994; Keller, 2003). Nevertheless, it is important to note that the practice of cosleeping has come under careful scrutiny in the last years, and both the American Academy of Pediatrics (2000) and the U.S. Consumer Product safety Commission (1999) have issued strong statements against cosleeping practices, the latter citing a number of infant fatalities related to cosleeping with parents or sibling, and the first suggesting the existence of a connection between cosleeping and sudden infant death syndrome.

Regulation of negative reactivity and crying is also an important developmental task for infants (Barr, 1999; Bornstein et al., 1991; Lamb et al., 2002), and although there are remarkable similarities in the basic ways that caregivers respond to crying and try to soothe babies (LeVine et al., 1994; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000), different cultures often have particular beliefs about how much responsiveness to babies cries and fussing is desirable (García-Coll, 1990; Keller, 2003; Small, 1998).

The !Kung San, hunter-gatherers of Botswana, respond to babies' frets within 10 seconds 98% of the time; Western mothers refrain from responding to infants' cries as much as 40% of the time (Barr, 1999). It is therefore reasonable to assume that a !Kung San mother may consider 10 minutes of crying as excessive, but for a mother from Canada or the United States, crying may not be qualified as such until it has been going on for a considerably longer period (Small, 1998). For the Gusii, keeping the infant soothed, fed, and in a calm state is driven by the belief that on-demand feeding, constant holding, and physical care are essential for protecting the infant from harm and disease. Therefore, the cries of Gusii babies elicit immediate caregiving responses (LeVine et al., 1994).

Caregivers' response to early stress signals in newborns and infants have been shown to mediate stress reactivity (Gunnar & Barr, 1998; Gunnar, Broderson, Nachmias, Buss, & Rigatuso, 1996) and has emerged as an important issue in relation to attention processes later in life (NICHD, 2003; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). The reciprocity between parenting goals and infants' self-regulatory efforts is highlighted by Papoušek (2000), who points out that in many native cultures of Africa and Southeast Asia, the “immediate responsiveness from the mother or some other member of the social group helps the infant to self-regulate before a full-blown cry” (Papoušek, 2000, p. 424). Moreover, babies who receive more responsive and immediate caregiving when in distress appear to shift more smoothly into patterns of noncrying communication and seem to spend more time in happier, more self-regulated states as they approach their first year (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). A study by Gray et al. (2002) found that breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact functioned as an analgesic and helped newborns soothe more quickly when experiencing a painful routine medical procedure. These results lead to important considerations about the role that certain childrearing practices, particular those related to continuous care and on-demand breastfeeding, can potentially have in infants' response to stress. Indeed, higher levels of responsiveness to crying and reactivity to distress have been associated with the lower incidence of persistent crying and below-average levels of total crying and fussing (Axia & Weisner, 2002; Feng et al., 2001; Papoušek, 2000; Shwalb et al., 1996).

Caregiving responses to crying, reactivity, and sleep can then be considered as powerful mediators for self-regulatory tasks related to these behaviors; cross-culture as well as within-culture variations may be assumed to be adaptive responses meant to support the acquisition of self-regulatory capacities valued in the culture. Immigration can challenge both the practices around infant self-regulation and the normative beliefs that drive these practices; precisely because self-regulatory tasks are closely connected to the everyday routines of childcare, they play an important role in the practical expressions of childrearing goals, and are vulnerable to outside pressures generated by changes in the sociocultural milieu brought about by immigration. The complexity of the immigrant experience must, therefore, be considered as central when practitioners are involved in work that involves families and infants from diverse cultural backgrounds. Its relevance to and potential for generating a state of flux in parenting practices suggest several important issues that practitioners in the field of infant development need to take into account.


The fact that caregiving practices are related to the image that each culture holds of the adaptive adult (Gaskins, 1996; Harrison et al., 1990; Keller, 2003; Levine et al., 1994; Roer-Strier & Rosenthal, 2001; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000) translates into important considerations about how immigration can affect parenting and child development. Childrearing practices and parental goals for immigrant families are vulnerable to the discontinuities that may result from parents' efforts to reconcile the normative practices of their past with the demands deriving from the expectations of the present.

On the other hand, assumptions about the quality, effectiveness, and meaning of the parent-child interaction are central to programs and professionals working to support or improve the effectiveness of this relationship (McCollum et al., 2000). Traditional paradigms in early intervention and parent education initiatives may include the view that parents are to be trained to comply with providers' guidelines (Vacca & Feinberg, 2000), which are themselves embedded both in the personal cultural beliefs of the practitioner and in the cultural context where the service is being provided (Katz & Scarpati, 1995). Divergence in the developmental scripts families have for their infants and those deemed appropriate in the context of intervention holds potential for conflict, particularly in instances where parents' behavior might be in frank conflict with the values upheld by physicians, social workers, and other service providers (McCollum et al., 2000).

Of particular concern in the work with culturally diverse families are practices pertaining to sleep, feeding, and soothing, since their routine but intimate nature is deeply embedded in values and mores congruent with parenting goals that were adaptive in the culture of origin (Keller, 2003; Roer-Strier & Rosenthal, 2001). It is not uncommon for these practices to be in direct opposition to the recommendations of the host society or even considered potentially dangerous, and, therefore, to have great potential for being labeled as deviant or in need of modification. The position of the American Academy of Pediatrics (2000) against cosleeping practices illustrates this possibility, as cosleeping is notably more prevalent among immigrant families who come from societies where this practice is common (Greenfield & Suzuki, 1998; Small, 1998).

Intervention efforts that are based on a solid knowledge of the particular values and practices of parents and caregivers are gaining more and more recognition for their effectiveness. Gilkerson and Stott (1997) provide a powerful example of the effects that listening to the voices of family and caregivers can have on service providers. They conducted a series of extended focus group sessions with the mothers of children attending an Early Head Start (EHS) program in Chicago. The results of the group discussions revealed important aspects of the mothers' perceptions of their roles and childrearing goals, and also uncovered their beliefs about ways that the EHS program could support and further these roles. Short- as well as long-term goals for the program and its practitioners arose in response to the issues raised by the mothers who participated in the discussion groups, and allowed the EHS staff to develop a service agenda consonant with families' parenting goals and caregiving practices.

This model of intervention suggests several guidelines to support practitioners' work with infants and families whose caregiving practices may differ from those of the mainstream, and may even help to consolidate a service approach where an understanding of the beliefs and values that support infant care practices must precede any initiative geared toward their revision and/or modification. Because of the connections between early caregiving behavior, self-regulation, and latter developmental implications (NICHD, 2003; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000), feeding, sleeping, and regulation of reactivity, and the practices that surround them, deserve special attention in any intervention initiative that involves families and infants of diverse cultural backgrounds. This is particularly relevant to immigrant families whose status may render them especially vulnerable to the tensions involved in trying to conform to the new expectations of their host society.

It is important that practitioners keep in mind that changes in caregiving practices can only occur over time and preferably in the context of a relationship forged as a true partnership, where service providers and families work together toward a common end: the well-being of the child. For this partnership to emerge and grow, it is essential that service providers systematically revisit and clarify their understanding of the family's parenting goals and values, as well as periodically update, together with the child's caregivers, the issues being addressed through the intervention process (Filer & Mahoney, 1996). It is also particularly relevant for practitioners to understand that the demands tacit in transition and change can lead parents to cling to traditional practices to maintain a link with their past (Harrison et al., 1990; Roer-Strier & Rosenthal, 2001), even when faced with hard evidence that these practices are no longer adaptive. Given these important considerations, the costs and benefits of working to radically modify caregiving practices considered divergent from mainstream mandates must be weighed with great care (González-Mena & Bhavnagri, 2003), and the possible impact on the parent-child relationship as well as on the relationship between the service provider and the family carefully examined. In cases where the intervention needs to address potentially dangerous practices, as in the case of cosleeping, particular care must be given to a sensitive approach that seeks to understand the beliefs that underlie the practice and the role it plays in the parents' overarching caregiving agenda, without failing to provide the information needed to examine its potential risks in light of new knowledge.

Practitioners must also be given repeated opportunities to process and reflect on how the conceptual knowledge and personal beliefs and experiences that shape their professional repertoire play an important role in the quality of the service they provide to infants and families (Gilkerson & Shahmoon-Shanok, 2000). This reflective process must include a conscientious effort to develop a more “culturally sensitive” interventionist. Cultural sensitivity does not entail an encyclopedic knowledge about different practices, but a genuine attempt to understand the others' beliefs (Lieberman, 1998), the role they play, not only in their understanding of adequate parenting but also in relation to the ways to raise a child who will embody and perpetuate those traits they consider necessary in a well-adjusted adult.

In work with infants and their families, practitioners must adopt a “from-within” approach that places parental beliefs and values at the center of the intervention, working with parental practices rather than against them. For this to be possible, a deeper understanding of the distinct ways that different cultures support infants' self-regulation is essential.


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culture; immigration; infancy; parenting; self-regulation

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