For decades now, politicians have pushed the false narrative that our children’s development begins when they enter school, and that, if we just allow them to create laws that govern education, all kids will become successful. Of course, that is not true, but, as we have come to know, politicians are often unmoved by facts. After all, they have party platforms and personal agendas to satisfy. So, onward they have marched.
A new documentary from Yahoo news, titled, “Baby Brain,” documents research on the negative impact poverty often has on unborn children and what can be done to mitigate the damage. Beth Greenfield, senior editor of Yahoo News, reviewed the documentary in an online article titled, “Harvard Research: Impact of Poverty Begins in the Womb, But It Doesn’t Have To.”
It has been well established that children who grow up in poverty are often negatively impacted by their life experiences. But, now, as Ms. Greenfield writes, a study conducted by members of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, under the direction of Harvard Professor of Pediatrics, Dr. Jack Shonkoff, has determined that the impact of poverty is also often felt before a child is born.
For many years, medical research has told us that expectant mothers who abuse drugs and/or alcohol, who smoke cigarettes, who are exposed to unacceptable levels of lead, who are poorly nourished, and who engage in other unhealthy activities, jeopardize the future health of their unborn child. However, the Harvard study found that the toxic stress an expectant mother experiences can also have a long-term impact on a child’s well-being. According to studies, unborn babies are affected by the pressure pregnant women are feeling when they are struggling to make ends meet, when they are unsure where their next meal is coming from, when they don’t have the resources to pay their bills, when they are unsure where they will lay their head at night, and when they feel unable to get out of the hole in which they are stuck.
These findings should probably come as no surprise, since the expectant mother is the incubator on which an unborn child depends to develop and survive. The physiological impact stress has on human beings, such as an elevated heart rate, higher blood pressure, and a release of stress hormones into the bloodstream has been well known. According to Ms. Greenfield, this study shows that “these stress factors can also affect the development of the fetal brain, and that this interruption in development often leads to riskier behavior in the future and to a higher likelihood of bad health, poor grades, lower earnings, and prison time once the child is born.”
The good news is that it appears that these ill effects can be reduced or even reversed by making radical changes in prenatal and postnatal care for poor moms. In other words, if we are truly interested in giving all children the greatest opportunity to achieve success, waiting until they enter school or preschool to begin addressing their problems is not the best course of action to take. In fact, according to Dr. Shankoff, “The right kinds of support during pregnancy are ultimately the earliest interventions for…increasing the likelihood that the next generation will do better.”
New research published in the journal Pediatrics, discusses the positive impact the Nurse Family Partnership (NFP), a non-profit, pioneering, national early intervention program, has on first-time mothers and their children who are living in poverty. The article, which built on past findings, including a fifteen year NFP study, as well as some studies from the 1980s and 1990s, measured youth cognitive development and academic performance, and found involving mothers with NFP improved the cognitive functioning and academic performance of 18 year olds.
According to the NFP web site, the program works by “having specially trained nurses visit young first-time moms-to-be, starting early in the pregnancy, continuing through the child’s second birthday.”
Through this relationship, “moms benefit by getting the care and support they need in order to have a healthy pregnancy. At the same time, new moms develop a close relationship with a nurse who becomes a trusted resource they can rely on for advice on everything from caring for their child to taking steps to provide a stable, secure future for their new family. Throughout the partnership, the nurse provides new moms with the confidence and the tools they need not only to assure a healthy start for their babies, but to envision a life of stabilities and opportunities for both mother and child.”
Data from the long-term study demonstrate the effectiveness of the program. For example, the research has shown that involvement in the program has shown “a 48 percent decrease in child abuse and neglect, 67 percent less behavioral and intellectual problems in children at age 6, 72 percent fewer convictions of mothers (measured when the child is 15), 82 percent increase in months employed, and 35 percent fewer hypertensive disorders of pregnancy.”
In other words, NFP research shows that teaching moms-to-be and new moms how to properly parent has an enormously positive long-term impact not only on the mother, but also on their children.
So, despite what our politicians would like for us to believe, parenting actually matters … a lot.
Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.