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 developmental science 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.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

What Do Parents Want? Parsing Contradictions in The Zero to Three National Parent Survey

Zero to Three, the Washington, DC based organization whose mission is to advocate for infants and toddlers to have a strong start in life, just released results of their ambitious project to answer this question. The data from the current report, a collaborative effort with the Bezos Family Foundation, comes from a 50-question Internet survey in Spanish and English distributed to a national sample of 2,200 parents of children age birth to 5. The survey was developed out of 10 in-depth discussion groups with parents from a wide range of backgrounds. 

The Zero to Three report contains some striking, and in some places contradictory, data. Starting out with results suggesting that most parents think that parenting can be taught, they offer this statistic:
69% of parents say that if they knew more positive parenting strategies they would use them.
One might conclude that giving more parenting advice would be the solution, but another statistic suggests a different interpretation might be indicated:
63% of parents overall say "I am skeptical of people who give parenting advice and recommendations if they don't know my child and my situation specifically."
This finding suggests that while parents feel the need for something, and name that "something" as a wish for "strategies" they, at least in part, recognize themselves as the expert with regard to their child and so balk at advice that comes without full understanding of their particular circumstance.

Adding to that contradiction is this disturbing, though not surprising, finding that:"90% of moms and 85% of dads feel judged. 46% of moms and 45% of dads say they feel judged all the time or nearly all the time." These statistics suggests that the abundance of "expert" advice may in fact cause more harm than good.

A whole section of results titled "There is a Missing First Year" captures the fact that parents consistently underestimate the importance of the early months of life.
Parents also don’t realize how deeply [infants] can be affected by the way parents interact with them in the first months of life. A notable portion of parents miss the mark by months, or even years. 
One might conclude from this finding that parents need more information. However, a majority of parents say that knowing the importance of the early years is both motivating and terrifying, with 35% equally or more terrified than motivated. This finding suggests that offering information alone could be counterproductive. It is possible that parents do in fact know how important they are.  The fact that they cannot, due to a wide range of stresses, be available to their babies in ways they want to be, may make this knowledge intolerable.

The survey shows that parents perceive support to be lacking when they feel stressed or overwhelmed, with almost half saying they do not get the support they need and 8% say they get no support at all. 

So what is the nature of "support?" 

This survey brought to mind a lecture I attended a number of years ago by the late esteemed psychoanalyst Daniel Stern entitled, "What do Mothers Want?" While the significance of fathers is notably absent from his work∗, his insights on mothers, gleaned from in-depth clinical work with mother-infant dyads, add an important dimension to the Zero To Three findings and might help parse some of the contradictions and answer this question. 

In his talk he presented what he terms The Motherhood Constellation, or the themes that emerge in a woman's life when she navigates the transition to motherhood.

1. Can she maintain the life and growth of the baby?
2. Can she emotionally engage with the baby in her own authentic manner, and will that engagement assure the baby's psychic development towards the baby she wants?
3. Will she know how to create and permit the necessary support system to fulfill these functions?
4. Will she be able to transform her self-identity to permit and facilitate these functions?



Stern is calling attention to the enormity of the transition to parenthood, beginning with the basic question of being able to sustain the life of this new human being. Being fully present emotionally to facilitate the baby's development is tied to both having the necessary support and validation of how a woman's self-identity is transformed in a normal and healthy way.

So it could be that "support" equals "listening." Support means a different thing for every individual. For one it might mean playing with an older sibling while mom and baby nap. For another it might mean grocery shopping. For another engaging a withdrawn and perhaps depressed partner might be needed. For yet another it might mean finally addressing her own experience of abuse so that she does not repeat the pattern with her child. 

A growing body of evidence suggests a central role of parental self-efficacy in healthy child development. Each parent needs to have his or her experience validated with the aim of helping achieve a sense of self-efficacy and expertise with respect to his or her child. Advice, strategies, and information may have a role to play, but only within the context of time for listening.

∗A striking finding of the Zero to Three survey concerns fathers, 73% of whom say their lives began when they became a dad, with 63% feeling unrecognized and 40% feeling shut out. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Did Mothers Save the Affordable Care Act?

In striking contrast to the happenings in the US congress on Thursday afternoon, Kate Middleton, future queen of England, spoke these words at London's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists on the occasion of a launch of educational films dealing with maternal mental health:
Nothing can really prepare you for you the sheer overwhelming experience of what it means to become a mother, It is full of complex emotions of joy, exhaustion, love and worry all mixed together. Your fundamental identity changes overnight. You go from thinking of yourself as primarily an individual, to suddenly being a mother, first and foremost.
Her normalization of the struggles of this transition, heightened by absence of the kind of support she acknowledges she, unlike many mothers, has in abundance, provided exactly what is needed to decrease stigma and shame. 

When after a tense day on Friday the House had to admit defeat and pull legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, it occurred to me that perhaps the late removal of 10 essential health benefits, including maternity and mental health care, done to appease the conservative Freedom Caucus, in fact contributed to the final demise of the American Health Care Act. 

Both maternity care and mental health care are exactly what we need in abundance to turn our country around. In his highly acclaimed book Hillbilly Elegy J.D. Vance comes to the conclusion that the problems afflicting the communities who feel unheard and unrecognized, and so voted in large numbers for President Trump, have their roots in Adverse Childhood Experiences

When parents feel heard and supported, they are available to be present with their children in a way that promotes healthy development, both physical and emotional. In contrast, when parents struggle- with things such as mental illness, substance abuse, marital conflict and domestic violence-it impacts upon their children's growing bodies and brains in ways that have long-term negative consequences. 

In my rural community in Western Massachusetts, we are bringing together clinicians who work with newborns and parents-including pediatricians, maternity nurses, early intervention specialists and home visitors- to insure that all babies and parents feel heard and supported from the moment of birth. An abundance of scientific evidence shows us that investment in the earliest days and weeks of life offers the greatest opportunity to promote development and prevent transmission of trauma to the next generation. 

I recognize that the politics are complicated. However, the idea that perhaps members of Congress, all of whom have mothers, could not bring themselves to vote against mothers in such an explicit way gives me hope. 

Perhaps we needed to come face-to-face with the importance of maternal and mental health care in a dramatic, high profile, and potentially dangerous way. Now that we are here, I am hopeful that momentum will move us forward to address this issue in ways that are broad and far-reaching. Kate Middleton, and her program Heads Together, serves as an excellent model.



Sunday, March 5, 2017

Rethinking Sensory Sensitivities: Why Music is Therapy



Towards the end of  our 2 day visit with neuroscientist Stephen Porges at the University of Massachusetts Boston Infant-Parent Mental Health program,  I asked about a young girl I treated a number of years ago with selective mutism.  Her parents described how during a large family gathering  she would shut down. But if they listened to classical music, she would join the gathering and begin to speak. This story, he replied, represents his theory in action.

In my 30 years practicing general and behavioral pediatrics and now specializing in early childhood mental health, I have increasingly come to recognize the central role of sensory processing in healthy emotional development. When I listen carefully to stories of parents, whether the child is 18 months, 5 years or even 17 years, with concerns ranging from a fussy baby, attention problems, behaviors associate with autism, anxiety, and explosive behavior, I invariably discover behaviors  suggestive of sensory processing sensitivities. A child could not ride in the car without screaming unless the same song was played over and over again. A visit to a butterfly museum ended in a meltdown as a child longed to have a butterfly land on his shirt but yet fell apart when it did. A newborn became completely disorganized and unable to feed when his father sneezed. These details I have collected over the years could fill several books.

Many have wondered about the central role of sensory processing in behaviors or "symptoms" we name as psychiatric disorders. Occupational therapy as a discipline has called for recognition of "Sensory Integration Disorder." Child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan called attention to the way sensory  and affective experience are intimately intertwined.

In those two days, however, Stephen Porges fundamentally transformed my understanding of sensory processing and its role in emotional and behavioral disturbances.

The bones of the middle ear, it turns out, are a direct entry point, via the autonomic nervous system, to our social engagement system. He described how mammals are different from reptiles because two of these tiny bones are detached, allowing us to hear the low amplitude, high frequency sounds of the human voice.

Proper functioning of the middle ear muscles, along with the muscles of the face, particularly around the eyes, as well as the larynx that control intonation and prosody of voice, is essential for social engagement. When the way we take in sound is distorted, it disrupts the entire autonomic nervous system, interfering with this social engagement system.

Underlying this conceptualization is the Polyvagal Theory, founded on decades of detailed neurophysiology research. (The theory is very complex: I attempt to explain it more fully in my recently released book The Developmental Science of Early Childhood.)

Essentially Porges discovered that rather than the simple either-or of social engagement or fight flight, there is a third way that our body responds to the environment when we experience overwhelming threat. This response is under the influence of what he terms the "primitive vagus" and is closer in function to the reptilian brain.

When my patient with selective mutism listens to classical music, the sense of threat she is experiencing in the environment, that is paralyzing her social engagement system, subsides.

Porges has developed a model of treatment called The Safe and Sound Protocol, with body of evidence to support its efficacy in treating a range of difficulties. It is described as a "non-invasive intervention involves listening to music that has been processed specifically to retune the nervous system (regulating state) to introduce a sense of safety and the ability to socially engage."


Porges is calling on us to rethink static categories of "disorders" and rather to recognize the wide range of disturbances of emotion and behavior as distortions of the social engagement system via distortions in function of the autonomic nervous system. With this conceptualization, listening to music could be the primary treatment.

While Porges' theory and research resonate deeply with my clinical work, my profound understanding of his ideas actually comes from my son, who has given me permission to write about him. Sitting in a car in the parking lot with the windows closed while the rest of the family enjoyed fireworks, running in circles and not engaging with other children in preschool, gagging on foods other than the narrow range he could tolerate- these typical examples represent his early years. 

Unaware of Porges' theory, my son found his own treatment. In toy stores only the musical instruments interested him. At the age of 8 he took up the saxophone. His beautiful voice transformed to a deep bass in his adolescent years. Now in college, he performs regularly in two singing groups who are like second families.  Thriving academically,  his social engagement system is working. 

It is not often that someone comes along and profoundly alters the way we understand the world. In my view, Stephen Porges is one such person. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Protesting Trump's Inauguration with Action: Baby Steps

While protests occur across the country in multiple forms around the inauguration, I will be ensconced at a 5-day Group Relations Conference. While perhaps what I write will come across as justification for my absence from these events, I see this activity as representing a protest of a different kind.

 I am attending the conference as part of my new job offering a range of supports in our local community for the parents of newborns aimed at fostering healthy relationships from the start of life.  

In these troubling times, in addition to gathering in large numbers to show our opposition to the many deeply concerning things our incoming president says and does, I hope that taking small steps every day to support human connection will promote positive change.  The following story from my behavioral pediatrics practice offers an example of one such baby step.

Bonnie's face, darkened by fatigue, communicated sadness bordering on despair. Living in poverty and alone in caring for her two-week-old daughter Jasmine after the baby's father abandoned them, she hobbled into my office, barely managing the weight of the sleeping infant bundled in her carrier. Bonnie slumped into a chair, unleashing a string of worries about her daughter's health and her precarious living situation. 

Referred to me by a wise colleague who saw the vulnerability in this pair, their needs seemed overwhelming as I sat quietly, thinking of how best to use our 50 minutes together. I suggested we see what Jasmine could tell us about herself. With Bonnie nodding her assent, I reached for my NBO toolkit.

Early in his work as a general pediatrician in the 1950s, T. Berry Brazelton, recipient of Obama's Presidential Citizen's Medal, observed the tremendous capacity of the newborn infant for complex communication. Research based on these observations led to development of the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS). The scale changed the way both child development experts and pediatricians understood babies. The Newborn Behavioral Observations System (NBO), a relationship-building tool that has as its core an opportunity for listening without judgment, is a clinical application of the NBAS developed by psychologist J. Kevin Nugent and colleagues. 
While Bonnie held the sleeping Jasmine in her arms, I performed what are referred to as the "habituation items" of the NBO. These examine a young infant's ability to protect sleep. When I shone a light in her face and she barely flinched, Bonnie proudly proclaimed, "She's a great sleeper."
Next we sat on the floor and, as Jasmine roused herself from a deep sleep, we described our observations about her movements. "She's so strong!" Bonnie exclaimed. Her mood shifted gradually as she saw how Jasmine supported her head while we held her in a sitting position, and then made rudimentary crawling movements when we placed her on her belly. (As always, I used this as an opportunity to counsel about having the baby sleep on her back.) 
By the time we moved on to the orienting items and observed how Jasmine turned to her mother's voice and followed a bright red ball, Bonnie was positively joyful. When she stood at the front desk to schedule a follow up appointment, her transformed mood seemed contagious as office staff and other waiting families admired Jasmine and shared in Bonnie's exuberance. 
The poverty, isolation, and stress plaguing this mother-baby pair remain. Addressing these problems will take both time and broad social change. But in light of the 700 new connections per second a newborn brain makes in the context of caregiving relationships, these 50 minutes could hold great significance.
I see this visit as a kind of metaphor. In parallel with large-scale vigilant attention to the actions of the incoming administration, we must also value taking even the smallest actions every day against forces of hate and intolerance, moving our world in the direction of love and human connection.