Jan. 6

A weekly publication of               1/6/2014

Did you know... 

The earliest years of our lives set us on paths leading toward—or away from—good health.

“… for children experiencing severe adversity, environmental influences appear to be at least if not more powerful than genetic predisposition in their impact on the odds of having chronic health problems later in life.”
–Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

Dear Pat,

Some Early Childhood Experiences Shape Adult Life, But Which Ones? Is the topic of a blog post last month by Maanvi Singh, a freelance health and science reporter for NPR. Here’s what she had to say:

Most of us don't remember our first two or three years of life — but our earliest experiences may stick with us for years and continue to influence us well into adulthood.

Just how they influence us and how much is a question that researchers are still trying to answer. Two studies look at how parents' behavior in those first years affects life decades later, and how differences in children's temperament play a role.

The first study, published in Child Development, found that the type of emotional support that a child receives during the first three and a half years has an effect on education, social life and romantic relationships even 20 or 30 years later.

Babies and toddlers raised in supportive and caring home environments tended to do better on standardized tests later on, and they were more likely to attain higher degrees as adults. They were also more likely to get along with their peers and feel satisfied in their romantic relationships.

"It seems like, at least in these early years, the parents' role is to communicate with the child and let them know, 'I'm here for you when you're upset, when you need me. And when you don't need me, I'm your cheerleader,' "says Lee Raby, a psychologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware who led the study.

Raby used data collected from 243 people who participated in the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk. All the participants were followed from birth until they turned 32. "Researchers went into these kids' home at times. Other times they brought the children and their parents to the university and observed how they interacted with each other," Raby says.

Of course, parental behavior in the early years is just one of many influences, and it's not necessarily causing the benefits seen in the study. While tallying up the results, the researchers accounted for the participants' socioeconomic status and the environment in which they grew up.

Ultimately, they found that about 10 percent of someone's academic achievement was correlated with the quality of their home life at age three. Later experiences, genetic factors and even chance explain the other 90 percent, Raby says.

And a child's psychological makeup is a factor as well.

The second study, also published in Child Development, found that children's early experiences help predict whether or not they end up developing social anxiety disorder as teenagers — but only for those who were especially sensitive and distrustful as babies.

For this study, researchers from the University of Maryland observed how 165 babies interacted with their parents. When separated from their parents, some got upset but quickly recovered when they were reunited. Other babies had a harder time trusting their parents after a brief separation, and they weren't able to calm down after being reunited.

Those extra-sensitive babies were more likely to report feeling anxious socializing and attending parties as teenagers.

So what does this all mean? For one, it means that human development is complicated, according to Jay Belsky, a professor of human development at the University of California, Davis who was not involved in either study.

We know that our early experiences likely affect all of us to a certain extent, Belsky says. And we know that due to variations in psychological makeup, some people are more sensitive to environmental factors than others.

But that doesn't mean people can't recover from bad childhood experiences. "For some, therapy or medication may help," Belsky says. "And it's interesting, because there's now other evidence suggesting that the very kids who succumb under bad conditions are the ones who really flourish under good ones."

Thursday, January 8, 11pm – 2pm, Joint House and Senate Session for Governor's Inauguration, NH State House

Click here to see more events in New Hampshire!

Starting Smart: How Early Experiences Affect Brain Development  from Zero to Three and The Ounce of Prevention Fund provides this information on Helping Families Support Healthy Brain Development.

It is now clear that what a child experiences in the first years of life profoundly influences how his brain will develop and how he will interact with the world throughout his life. Parents play the most important role in providing the nurturing and stimulation that children require, but they need information and support to develop good parenting skills. In the past, extended family members were often close by, offering good advice and acting as role models for inexperienced parents. Young families today often live far away from grandparents and other family and rely more on community resources for information and support in parenting. There is much that communities can do to help families promote their children’s healthy brain development.

Educate parents about the importance of early experiences for their children’s development.
Often parents don’t know about the many little things they can do to foster their children’s healthy cognitive and emotional development, like talking to the children beginning in infancy, reading to them from a very early age, and helping them play simple games. Parents, especially new or young parents, may also need help learning to recognize their children’s cues that they are hungry for stimulation or have had enough.

In some cases written materials or a few sessions of parenting education classes may be all that a parent needs to learn how to provide his or her child with appropriate stimulation. However, parenting styles and beliefs that have evolved over generations—such as rarely talking to babies—can be difficult for parents to change. Many parents benefit from community-based programs in which a parent group leader or a home visitor acts as a role model and coach, supporting parents in their relationships with their children. Programs that work with parents over several years can be very successful in helping them become effective "first teachers" of their children (Olds et al, 1993).

Prevent abuse and neglect.
Children who are abused or severely neglected are at extremely high risk of developing emotional, behavioral, social, and intellectual disabilities. By the time a child is identified as having been neglected or abused, these problems have already begun to develop. Greater attention must be given to preventing maltreatment before it starts. High-quality home visiting programs that start working with families as soon as the child is born have proven to be effective in preventing abuse and neglect (MacMillan et al., 1994). The key to these programs’ success is that they help parents manage the stresses of raising children before unhealthy patterns develop and things get out of control

Provide accessible, quality mental health services for parents.
Research has shown that parents suffering from untreated depression often fail to respond sensitively to their children’s cries and bids for attention, and that they are unlikely to provide the child with the kind of cognitive stimulation that promotes healthy brain development (Field, 1995). Other mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, can also dramatically affect a parent’s ability to interact appropriately with his or her child. Proper mental health treatment for these parents can make a real difference in their ability to raise a competent, well-adjusted child.

Ensure adequate nutrition prenatally and in the first years after birth.
Numerous studies have shown the devastating effects on intelligence and brain development of a lack of basic nutrients in the prenatal period, in infancy and in early childhood. Programs such as the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) can be effective in ensuring that babies receive the kinds of foods they need to thrive (Yip et al., 1987). Educational and outreach campaigns to alert women to the importance of nutrition in the first trimester of pregnancy would also be helpful in preventing problems that can arise in this critical period when brain cells begin to form.

As our society becomes even more technically and socially complex, we cannot afford to continue to allow large numbers of children to miss out on the positive experiences they need in infancy and early childhood; the costs, in terms of lost intellectual potential and increased rates of emotional and behavioral problems, are too high. The new developments in brain research show us what children need; our challenge is to ensure that every child receives it.

Please join us this year as Every Child Matters works with our members of Congress and our State Legislature to ensure that the needs of every child is considered as they build their budgets and legislative priorities.

MaryLou Beaver
New Hampshire Director
Every Child Matters Education Fund

You can help win the fight for our kids by making a tax-deductible donation to ECM in any amount at www.everychildmatters.org.

Every Child Matters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization whose mission is to make children a national political priority. For more information, visit www.everychildmatters.org
1023 15th St. NW Suite 401 Washington, DC 20005

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