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Baby sloth being raised by soft toy

by on 2015/08/03

The media have been reporting widely on the case of a baby sloth in a London Zoo who is being raised with the help of a soft toy. Interestingly, the media coverage has focused on the use of the toy to aid physical development. What does psychological research suggest is happening here?

According to news sources (for example, the BBC), the baby sloth’s mother stopped producing milk and was unable to care for it.  The zoo-keeper looking after the 7 week old sloth, purchased the soft toy from the zoo gift shop as she wanted “the baby to use all the muscles that he would be using if he was on his mother”. She is quoted as saying that “‘he is able to climb all the way around the teddy and make himself comfy however he wants to be”.

Media coverage from the BBC, to the New Scientist, to the Independent reported on the use of the soft toy in aiding the physical development of the sloth. This is not surprising – the baby has impressive claws which inspired the zoo-keepers to nickname him Edward (Scissorhands). These claws help the slow-moving, nocturnal animal grasp on to trees in the tropical forests of Central and South America which is the sloth’s native home. Indeed, the soft toy has been adapted using carabiners – climbing equipment that allows it to be hung from a branch while the baby climbs on and can strengthen his limbs. Sloths normally develop their muscles by clinging on to their mothers.

Psychological research from the 1950s also suggests though that the soft toy may facilitate the sloth’s development in more ways than solely the physical development of muscles. Attachment theory would suggest the sloth is also having basic psychological needs met by cuddling the soft toy. Attachment theory, which centres around the deep and emotional bond an infant develops with a caregiver from early in life, first became popular in the 1950s. This theory is still very popular today. Peaches Geldof publicised the popular parenting style known as ‘attachment parenting’ that is based on this theory a few years ago across a range of media interviews, including a notorious showdown with Katie Hopkins on ITV’s This Morning programme.

One of the earliest sources of evidence for the importance of an emotional bond between an infant and a significant other from early in development, came from a series of experiments conducted by the researcher Harlow in the 1950s with rhesus monkeys. He raised monkeys, who had been separated from their mothers immediately after birth, with a surrogate mother who was either made of wire or covered in a soft cloth. Some of the monkeys could get milk from the wire ‘mother’ and others could get milk from the cloth ‘mother’. Over time it was found that both sets of monkeys spent more time with the cloth ‘mother’ than the wire ‘mother’ even if the cloth ‘mother’ did not provide milk. The infant would only go to the wire ‘mother’ if they were hungry.  As soon as they were fed they would return to the cloth ‘mother’. When a frightening object was placed in the cage the infant clung to the cloth ‘mother’, which was referred to by the researchers as acting as a ‘safe base’. The infants explored more in the presence of the cloth ‘mother’ and it was effective in reducing their fear reactions.

The behaviour of the monkeys provided evidence for the theory of attachment that suggests it is the sensitivity and security of the caregiver that is important for development (rather than solely as a provider of food). Harlow concluded that in order to develop normally, monkeys must interact with an object they can cling to during the first months of life known as the ‘critical period’. This concept was revised by later attachment researchers to reflect a ‘sensitive’ period in development. Although there were clear ethical issues with the original study, and later studies have revised some of the aspects of the conclusions made from these experiments, the basic finding of the importance of an attachment relationship with a significant other from early in development is still central to current attachment theory. Harlow’s experiments would also suggest that 7 week old ‘Edward’, the sloth in London Zoo being ‘raised by teddy bear‘, is getting more than his physical developmental needs from clinging to the soft toy.

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