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Atypical maternal cradling laterality in an impoverished South African population

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Human studies consistently report a 60%–80% maternal left cradling preference. The dominant explanation points to an engagement of the emotionally more-attuned right brain. In contrast, we found equal incidences of left (31.3%), right (34.3%) and no-preference (34.3%) cradling in an impoverished South African population living under adverse conditions characterized by extreme dangers. We found striking differences on the Parenting Stress Index (PSI) between mothers with no cradling laterality preference and mothers with either a left or right preference. In several mammals a homologous left preference becomes stronger when acute threats prevail, rendering the rightwards shift we observed under dangerous conditions seemingly paradoxical. We propose this paradox can be resolved in terms of life-history strategy theory which predicts reduced parental investment in chronically dangerous environments. We interpret our high PSI score findings in no-preference cradlers as indicative of poorer, or at least ambivalent, maternal coping which many studies show is typically associated with reduced emotional sensitivity and responsiveness. We suggest that the latter may be a psychological mechanism mediating a partial withdrawal of parental investment in response to an enduringly adverse environment. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study investigating cradling laterality preferences in an adverse socioeconomic environment.
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Keywords: Cradling; infant; maternal; parenting stress index; poverty

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Global Risk Governance Programme, Institute for Safety Governance and Criminology, Law Faculty, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa 2: Department of Psychology, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa 3: Human Communication Science, University College London, London, UK 4: Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, London, UK

Publication date: May 4, 2019

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