The biggest risk factor for infant development is poverty, which comes with many other risk factors, including poor nutrition, lack of access to good health care, lack of high-quality child care, poor living arrangements and parents who are stretched to the limit. Infants and young children can deal with pretty much anything as long as their caregivers are able to buffer the stresses around them. No matter how dire a situation is, when the parents can manage their own stress and be calm, patient and loving toward their baby, they can help the baby to calm down and feel safe.
But many parents nowadays are experiencing high levels of stress. And younger generations, who are more likely to be parents of young children, are more stressed than older ones. As shown in "The Raising of America," parental stress gets "under the skin" of the babies of the next generation. One study found that higher parental stress in the first months of life was related to more anxiety and lower ability to self-regulate as teenagers.
The best way to support infant development is to ensure that the adults who care for babies are supported, beginning prenatally. Adequate prenatal health care includes attention to maternal mood disorders as well as social support and education. In the newborn period, home visiting programs are highly beneficial. In many European countries, all women receive a home-visiting nurse or other professional, who teaches basic caregiving skills and supports the young family. These families also enjoy paid parental leave so they can focus entirely on the huge changes that come with a new baby. Such programs reduce stress and improve breastfeeding success.
As mothers consider going back to work, there needs to be high-quality and affordable childcare that ensures further loving, competent care for this new baby. Although research is very clear on what this care looks like, few families have access to it and childcare workers are among the lowest-paid professionals in the country.
Utah is fortunate to have several strong programs and initiatives. For example, the Early Childhood Utah Council supports and connects professionals working with young children. Programs such as Babywatch Early Intervention, Home Visiting programs, and (Early) Head Start only support parents and young children who are at high risk. A few programs in Utah, which are exemplary for the country, support all parents of young children. For example, Help Me Grow Utah offers information, support and resources to parents from the prenatal period through age eight. The Welcome Baby program, sponsored by United Way, has trained volunteers visiting new moms to offer support and information. This is invaluable in helping these new mothers on their way and reducing their stress and anxiety.
Utah has made great strides in creating systems and programs that are supportive. Now, we need to expand them and invest in babies, so that every baby in Utah gets the best start possible and we'll have a healthier, better educated, and less stressed generation of adults in the future.
Ilse DeKoeyer-Laros is a lecturer in psychology. Cheryl Wright is an associate professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah. They are organizers of "Raising our Babies," a public meeting March 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Utah, Building 73.