Published Findings

We are delighted that the first scientific article using data from this project has been published now! In this article, Eve has examined differences and similarities in the social and physical environment infants in UK and Uganda are growing up in, during their first year of life. We would like to thank all the participating families for their invaluable contribution! Below you can find the abstract and a link to the full article.

Maternal attitudes and behaviours differentially shape infant early life experience : a cross cultural study

Eve Holden, Joanna C. Buryn-Weitzel, Santa Atim, Hellen Biroch, Ed Donnellan, Kirsty E. Graham, Maggie Hoffman, Michael Jurua, Charlotte V. Knapper, Nicole J. Lahiff, Sophie Marshall, Josephine Paricia, Florence Tusiime, Claudia Wilke, Asifa Majid, Katie E. Slocombe 

Early life environments afford infants a variety of learning opportunities, and caregivers play a fundamental role in shaping infant early life experience. Variation in maternal attitudes and parenting practices is likely to be greater between than within cultures. However, there is limited cross-cultural work characterising how early life environment differs across populations. We examined the early life environment of infants from two cultural contexts where attitudes towards parenting and infant development were expected to differ: in a group of 53 mother-infant dyads in the UK and 44 mother-infant dyads in Uganda. Participants were studied longitudinally from when infants were 3– to 15–months-old. Questionnaire data revealed the Ugandan mothers had more relational attitudes towards parenting than the mothers from the UK, who had more autonomous parenting attitudes. Using questionnaires and observational methods, we examined whether infant development and experience aligned with maternal attitudes. We found the Ugandan infants experienced a more relational upbringing than the UK infants, with Ugandan infants receiving more distributed caregiving, more body contact with their mothers, and more proximity to mothers at night. Ugandan infants also showed earlier physical development compared to UK infants. Contrary to our expectations, however, Ugandan infants were not in closer proximity to their mothers during the day, did not have more people in proximity or more partners for social interaction compared to UK infants. In addition, when we examined attitudes towards specific behaviours, mothers’ attitudes rarely predicted infant experience in related contexts. Taken together our findings highlight the importance of measuring behaviour, rather than extrapolating expected behaviour based on attitudes alone. We found infants’ early life environment varies cross-culturally in many important ways and future research should investigate the consequences of these differences for later development.

The full article can be found through this link:

Summary of Preliminary Findings

Data collection with all the families in the UK and Uganda has kept us very busy so we are still working on publishing more scientific articles from the data, but we do now have some more preliminary findings to share with you!

Cross-Cultural Differences in Mother-Infant Play Behaviour


We are interested in variation in how often mothers and infants play in their first year of life, and what type of play they engage in. UK mothers told us over the phone what they and their infants were doing, every 30 minutes for a day every 3 months. In Uganda, the same information was recorded by a local researcher directly observing the family. We have now started to use this data to look at the amount of time UK babies spent playing in the day when they were 3 and 6 months old, and comparing this to Ugandan babies. We wanted to look into this because play is a key mother-infant interaction that is important for many aspects of social and cognitive development, so any differences in early play interaction between the UK and Uganda might be related to later differences in their social and cognitive behaviours.

Overall, we found that infants in the UK sample generally played more than the Ugandan sample, and both populations played more at 6 months than 3 months. When we looked more closely at the type of play babies engaged in at 6 months, the UK sample had a higher proportion of social play interactions than the Ugandan sample. The UK infants played more often with their mother than other caregivers, compared to Ugandan infants. Probably the most striking difference was the common use of objects in social play in the UK compared to Uganda where objects were barely ever used in social play. However, this was not because babies don’t play with objects frequently in Uganda – overall play involving objects was similar in the 2 groups, but Ugandan infants had much higher levels of playing with objects on their own (solo object play), rather than with their caregivers.

We then wanted to see if we could explain any of these differences in play behaviour between the two cultures. First, we looked at the time that mothers were available to play with their babies (e.g. not completing ‘essential tasks’, like work, cooking, shopping etc). We found that the lack of social play in Uganda compared to in the UK was not related to the availability of the mother; mothers in Uganda and the UK had a similar amount of available time to play with their babies.

Secondly, we explored if maternal attitudes on the importance or types of play and play interactions might be able to explain any of the differences. To do this we included data collected using a questionnaire that asked mothers to express their agreement or disagreement with statements about how a mother should interact with their baby.  We found that UK mothers value object play more than Ugandan mothers, which can explain the UK sample’s elevated levels of object play when the mother and baby are playing together. This also fits with previous literature that suggests object stimulation is often stressed in Western parenting.

UG play

However, the other differences could not be explained by maternal attitudes. The UK and Ugandan mothers both valued the importance of social play with their baby, which doesn’t explain why the UK mothers had higher levels of social play. Also, we found that Ugandan mothers actually value solo object play less than the UK mothers, which is the opposite trend from what we’d expected after seeing such high levels of solo object play in Uganda!  

So far, looking at this has abled us to identify important differences in the frequency and type of play infants experience in the UK and Uganda, but there’s still a lot more to explore! We’d really like to see if these differences in early social object play across the cultures have any consequences for the emergence of joint attention, and if the same patterns persist when the infants are older.

Infant-Directed Speech

At 3-9 months old, we audio-recorded mother’s speech when talking to their baby and when talking to an adult researcher about three different toys: a shark, a shoe and a sheep. We have acoustically analysed these recordings and found that in the UK, as a group, mothers talked with a higher pitch and with more changes in their pitch when talking to infants than adults.

This is in line with previous findings, however, to our surprise, when we looked at the ‘ee’, ‘oo’ and, ‘aa’ vowel sounds from the words sheep, shoe and shark, we didn’t find any evidence that these vowels were being ‘hyperarticulated’ (where vowels become more distinct and less easily confusable), when mothers talked about the objects with their child compared to the adult.

There was, however, a lot of individual variation between mothers on this measure, so we are planning future work to examine these individual differences and the contexts in which hyperarticulation is most likely to happen, with PhD student, Ellie Donnelly.

We ran a comparable test with our mothers in Uganda, and found that they did speak with a slightly higher pitch when talking to their babies compared to adults, but to a much lesser extent compared to UK mothers.

We are now examining if this pattern holds when we look at more naturalistic data from outside an experimental context. We will keep you updated as more final results are ready to share with you!

Ongoing Projects

We are currently extracting data from other tasks, so hope to be able to share some findings with you on these projects in the coming year!

Joanna is focussing on helping behaviour  (examined using a task that tests how a child reacts to a person unsuccessfully reaching for an object versus not reaching for it), sharing behaviour (investigated in a task where children are presented with two toys that they can choose to share with an adult) and attention directing (measured using a task where an adult tried to draw a child’s attention to objects placed in a room).

mum & baby

With the help of collaborators Bahar, Carlo and Zanna we are also looking at comforting behaviour (being examined using a task where an adult pretends to hurt themself) and reengagement (when a mother would stop playing with her infant and looked up for 30 seconds).