Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. Through stories from my behavioral pediatrics practice (with details changed to protect privacy) I will show how contemporary research in child development can be applied to support parents in their efforts to facilitate their children’s healthy emotional development. I will address factors that converge to obstruct such support. These include limited access to quality mental health care, influences of a powerful health insurance industry and intensive marketing efforts by the pharmaceutical industry.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Investing in early childhood means investing in infants

Why is this so difficult for us to see? The United States has one of the most restrictive parental leave policies in the world, as my fellow blogger Claire McCarthy accurately described in a recent post. We fail to recognize the importance in investing in early relationships. The closest we seem to be able to get is age four. But the abundance of research at the interface of developmental psychology, neuroscience and genetics tells us that 4 years may be too late.

I wonder if the answer lies in child development researcher Ed Tronick's  still-face experiment. I remember well when I first learned of his research. I felt a kind of outrage, asking "how did he get this past the IRB( institutional review board for human subjects)?" In his well-known experiment, a mother plays with her infant in a usual way, then presents a still-face for a specified period of time, and then resumes normal interaction.

I now work closely with Dr. Tronick and well recognize the brilliance of his work. He sometimes remarks that it is his students in his Infant Parent Mental Health program at UMass Boston who seem to have the most initial outrage at seeing the experiment. I now understand that as a kind of deep empathy with the experience of both the mother and the baby. With that comes a passion for protecting this relationship, a passion that drives those of us who chose this field.

There is a great poignancy to recognizing the tremendous capacity of the newborn to communicate when we have a system that fails to support stressed early parent-child relationships. The Newborn Behavioral Observation System developed by T. Berry Brazelton and Kevin Nugent beautifully brings out these capacities.

But if a parent is stressed in the setting of such things as emotional distress, her own history of abuse, marital conflict and domestic violence, social isolation and poverty, being available to her infant in the way he needs is difficult. This is where the investment needs to be. Not 4 years, but 4 months, 4 days, 4 hours.

In Sunday's New York Times Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman has an op ed Lifelines for Poor Children where he again speaks to the need to invest in early childhood. He refers to Obama's policy proposal. However in the actual text of Obama's proposal there is relatively little for infants. The emphasis is on the four-year-old.

All we know about the science of early childhood tells us that the brain grows in relationships. The volume of the brain doubles in the first year. The brain makes millions of synaptic connections every minute. It is in infancy that the parts of the brain responsible for emotional regulation have the most rapid development.

 A startling article in the New York Times Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught? begins with a vignette from a Kindergarten classroom where a child says, "My Mom does not like me," When he describes how his mother screams at him every day, he is taught how to handle the situation in a calm way. Somehow the tables are turned and it is the child's responsibility to manage his out-of control mother. The answer is not to teach this child emotional regulation, but to help this parent-child pair to grow together in a healthy loving way. And this help needs to start in infancy.

This week I will again attend a meeting of Representative Ellen Story's postpartum depression commission at the State House. It is always an uplifting experience as leaders in the field grapple with the question of how best to support parents and young infants. The commission recognizes that this work occurs primarily in the realm of health care, which is where young infants and their parents can most reliably be found.

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