Study: Rural Babies Fussier, Angrier Than Infants Raised In Cities

PULLMAN, Wash. — No matter where you live, babies are still a handful. Everything is new and exciting during our days in the crib, and parents from all demographics and regions will tell you caring for a newborn is a full-time job. That being said, a new study conducted at Washington State University finds that rural babies and urban babies tend to act differently.

Rather surprisingly, the research team found that rural babies display negative emotions like anger or frustration much more often than city-living babies. Conversely, urban babies are usually calmer, less fussy, and not as bothered by rules.

The study set out to examine differences in infant temperament, parent-child interactions, and parental stress between families living in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Inland Northwest. All analyzed families came from similar socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, in order to cut back on variables.

It was also noted that urban moms seem to be better at recognizing when their babies need or want something, as well as when the child is tired of a particular activity. So, this may have a direct influence on why urban babies are calmer; they’re moms are quicker to meet their needs. Rural moms on the other hand reported more instances of their babies acting angrily.

Generally speaking, these results are inline with prior research findings regarding parenting differences in urban and rural families. However, this is the first study to focus specifically on newborns and infants and compare rural and urban environments’ effects on behaviors.

“I was shocked, quite frankly, at how little there was in the literature on the effects of raising an infant in a rural vs. urban environment,” Washington State University psychologist & study author Maria Gartstein says in a release. “The fact that rural mothers in our study reported more frequent expressions of anger and frustration from their infants may be consequential as higher levels of frustration in infancy can increase risk for later attentional, emotional, social and behavioral problems.”

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Moving forward Gartstein and her team would like to pinpoint exactly what it is about urban living versus rural living that promotes these differences.

“For example, access to mental and behavioral health services and child rearing resources tend to be limited in more rurally situated communities,” she explains. “Figuring out what role, if any, these and other locational variables play in an infant’s social emotional development will be the next step in our research.”

To come to their conclusions, the researchers analyzed and compared datasets that had been gathered by two previous studies. Both of those studies had investigated mother-child interactions and subsequent infant behaviors.

The first study included 68 participating families from the Bay Area, and the second was comprised of 120 families hailing from the much more rural Whitman and Latah counties in the Inland Northwest. Across both projects, mothers filled out questionnaires that recorded the frequency of 191 varying behaviors their child may have exhibited at both six and 12 months after being born. The babies were then analyzed on the basis of 14 different categories (cuddliness, vocals). Additionally, mother-child playtime activities were recorded in a lab setting.

Another interesting finding: there were no observed differences in parental stress levels between urban and rural families.

“This may be a result of different, but functionally equivalent, risk factors,” Gartstein concludes. “Whereas living in a big city generally brings more exposure or proximity to violent crime, isolation can also cause a great deal of stress for rural parents. This research opens up a lot of very interesting future avenues of investigation.”

The study is published in the Journal of Community Psychology.

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