For centuries, Tajik families have used a “gahvora” (cradle) to contain babies. The gahvora is one of the oldest traditions in child care and it is still preserved in the region.
It is noteworthy that even among modern families in cities, you easily can find many families that still use the cradle.
A report on gahvora dangers, prepared and released by an international organization in Tajikistan, prompted a group of Western scholars to study it in more detail. Dr. Lana Karasik, from the City University of New York, shares some of the main up-to-date findings of their studies on the gahvora.
The gahvora is used to sleeping and containing babies, allowing mothers to work, complete chores, and tend to other children. Gahvoras are practical: while in the gahvora, babies are tucked in with swaddles and binds, keeping them warm even when wearing light clothes.
Dr. Lana Karasik is a professor in the Psychology Department at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She also directs the Culture & Development Lab and studies infant motor development—how infants move and explore. She is interested in cultural similarities and differences in how infants develop because cultural practices place different expectations on children’s skills and behaviors.
Gahvoras employ a unique design and drainage system, which keeps babies clean and dry without the need for diapers, which are expensive for families and bad for the environment.
Traditionally, the bride’s parents buy her a gahvora when she has her first child. In fact, it is difficult to find a local family without a gahvora. In modern times, gahvoras are more of a status symbol than a practical necessity; families with means living in the capital city, Dushanbe, with a bit more access to water and electricity, may not need to rely on gahvoras.
Some opponents of gahvoras argue that its use harms the child physically and psychologically. But, the claim that the practice is harmful is unwarranted as there is currently no data to suggest so.
As experts in infant perceptual and motor development, social cognition, language, and parenting, Dr. Lana Karasik, Dr. Karen Adolph, and Dr. Catherine Tamis-LeMonda became interested in the gahvora practice after reading an NGO’s internal report about the device and learning about it anecdotally. They were immediately intrigued because the report’s claim of restriction is in stark contrast with other typical childrearing practices that they are familiar with from around the world (in several chapters and papers, they have described cross-cultural differences in childrearing and their relation to motor development).
Our current knowledge of child development is based on research with Western children reared in Western traditions, where practices such as gahvora cradling do not exist. This does not mean that childrearing practices outside of Western traditions are abnormal. It simply means that little research outside of traditional Western norms has been done. So developmental theories haven’t caught up to account for the variability of children’s experiences and their developmental outcomes around the world.
Karasik and her colleagues were among the first to examine the practice of using the gahvora scientifically. In their paper published in PLoS ONE in 2018, they addressed two main research questions: (1) Does the gahvora really constrain infant movement? (2) Do caregivers continue to use the gahvora beyond the first couple of months when manual, postural, and locomotor skills are rapidly developing (as documented in Western infants)? Before examining the effects of movement restriction in the gahvora, it was necessary to first examine and document the extent and timing of restriction. The practice of gahvora cradling has a long tradition in Tajikistan, and it continues to be used to this day.
For their study, the researchers collected data from over 300 families living in “kishlaks” in two major regions outside of the capital, Dushanbe, where gahvora cradling was practiced. While collecting data, it became quite apparent that there are functional benefits of gahvora cradling, which makes sense as the practice has prevailed for hundreds of years and likely also occurs in adjacent regions of Central Asia (Uzbekistan has its own name for it, “beshik”). The gahvora protects children from environmental hazards (harsh weather, farm animals, irrigation ditches, farm tools, open fires, construction material, cliffs, pools of water, crowding, etc.). It has a clever toileting method, keeping infants clean and dry without relying on expensive disposable diapers (which separately have been shown to affect walking, see the paper by Adolph and colleagues). It is also possible that the constraints of the gahvora—swaddles and bindings—help to calm babies and possibly induce sleep.
In a way, the gahvora is like a baby-minder, similar to a Western playpen, keeping infants in place while allowing caregivers to leave the room to complete tasks. The main differences between the gahvora and other child-rearing devices are that babies in the gahvora are laid supine (like in Western cribs), swaddled (swaddling was recently introduced into Western practices and is typically used during the first 1-3 months of life), and bound head to toe with their limbs straightened alongside the body—and the gahvora is used throughout the children’s second and even third years of life.
The World Health Organization published standards on the ages at which infants should acquire major motor skills like sitting, crawling, standing, and walking. According to the WHO, about 50% of infants walk independently at around 12 months. Crawling and walking are major motor milestones in infancy enabling children to engage and learn about the world around them. If crawling and walking is prevented or delayed, as perhaps suggested with the use of the gahvora, would this affect development? Based on data collected from Western samples, basic motor skills—sitting, crawling, standing, walking—do open up opportunities for learning about the environment, objects, and people.
The World Health Organization standards are unfortunate, as they suggest a particular age when all infants should acquire basic motor skills. But the World Health Organization standards do not reflect individual differences or the variability of infants’ experiences, which we know could affect at what ages milestones are acquired. For example, some cultures utilize different practices of exercise, stretching, massages, and special devices, such as toys or equipment, which are all designed to stimulate mobility, manual, and postural skills. But the effects of restriction are lesser known.
Karasik and her team are currently examining the linkages between gahvora use and infant motor development. They are finding that extensive gahvora use was related to children’s brachycephaly, or flattening of the back of the head. However, head shape is not related to infants’ manual or locomotor skills—specifically in terms of when children acquire skills or how well they perform them.
Whether gahvora use has long-term implications on children’s personality is unknown. From the children’s perspective, they don’t seem to view the gahvora as punitive. The research team examined whether and, if so, how much infants protested when placed into the gahvora. Despite lots of handling when placed, swaddled, and bound, infants rarely fussed. Anecdotally, mothers reported that their infants even “ask” to be put in. It has yet to be determined whether, and to what extent, gahvora use is related to children becoming upset.
Children in Tajikistan, who are reared in the gahvora, are loved and are the centerpieces of the family.
For this reason, Karasik’s continued work in Tajikistan is so important for both theory and practice. In general, the gahvora cradle is an important practice in Tajik families because of its historical and cultural tradition and functional importance, particularly in rural kishlaks. Children in Tajikistan, who are reared in the gahvora, are loved and are the centerpieces of the family. And that is surely the most important part! Whether motor skills are acquired sooner or later implies that there is some sort of norm—but a norm relative to whom? The idea that there are particular ages or stages is an antiquated one; understanding that there is really no universal baby, and no average baby within or across cultures.