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When Loving Babies Is Not Enough

By Dr. Janice Gruendel, Senior Fellow, Institute for Child Success; Fellow, Zigler Center in Child Development & Social Policy, Yale University and Heather Baker, Manager, Public Consulting Group 

We all love babies. We are wired, both men and women, to lean in, connect eye-to-eye, and utter cooing sounds and silly words that make us, and them, smile. We take – and post – endless pictures; we brag pretty much to anyone who will listen. Even politicians love them: Who among us can remember the last time a politician running for office declined to smooch the forehead of a grinning baby?

So how is that we also fail to meet their needs at such staggering proportions in this nation?

BrainScience4imageOur latest paper in the Institute’s Brain Science series explores the problem of “neglect” from a child welfare perspective. In 2013, the last year for which we have comprehensive data, just over 300,000 young children, ages birth to three, were on the nation’s child welfare caseload for substantiated neglect. About 100,000 of these little ones were a year old or even younger. That’s enough babies to fill 250 school buses. Or one good-sized football stadium. Yikes.

In fact, child neglect accounts for at least three-quarters of all child protective services substantiations in the United States today. While the rate of substantiated abuse has declined in America over time, the rate of substantiated neglect has not. While experiencing neglect may not leave visible marks on a child’s body, chronic neglect has a very real impact on the young child’s developing brain.

From birth, the brain of a baby has nearly a billion neurons capable of receiv­ing, processing and connecting information from all of the baby’s senses. New connections across these neurons are made at the blazing speed of 700 to 1000 every second. This growth is anchored in the minute-to-minute and day-to-day interactions with people – usually parents but other primary caregivers as well – and with the child’s immediate environment. Every interaction matters in these early days, months and years of life. Most of these “serve and return” exchanges with babies and their caregivers are positive, responsive and nurturing; exhausted, sleep-deprived, multi-tasking parents somehow find the inner resources to respond to their baby’s needs. Unless, of course, they can’t.

Increasing amounts of research show us that certain conditions and challenges impair parents’ and other caregivers’ abilities to engage with infants and toddlers in positive, responsive ways. Economic poverty decreases their ability to provide essentials, like diapers. Domestic and neighborhood violence increases child safety concerns. Adult health and mental health challenges, especially maternal depression, reduce caregiver capacity to be emotionally present and to provide for their young children as all parents want to do. We might even call this “emotional poverty.”

Hand in hand in hand. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nate, under Creative Commons license.

Hand in hand in hand. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nate, under Creative Commons license.

When parents and other adult caregivers are stressed, babies get stressed. Not fussy- all babies get fussy. Excessive stress in a baby’s body causes the production of hormones and chemicals that can actually impair both the development and functioning of a young brain. We call this “toxic stress,” and it can happen to all of us. When it happens to children in the first three years of life, it can have immediate and lifelong health, mental health, behavioral and learning consequences.

This bit of scientific information is especially important when we think about young child “neglect” in a child welfare context. Science tells us that positive, caring, responsive adults in a child’s life buffer young children from this damaging level of stress. If parents are depressed, or are living with trauma, toxic stress or danger themselves, being able to act as a buffer for their child can be really hard.

This is not about love: It’s about a science-informed approach to help. Virtually all parents love their children and want to do what is best for them, but we know now that all parents will need some help during their parenting years and some parents will need more support for longer periods of time.

The science of early brain development, adversity and scarcity no longer permits us, as child welfare professionals, to look away from the immediate and longer-term impacts of poverty, racism, and toxic stress on the lives and families of the children we serve. In fact, a science-informed, two-generation approach requires that we rethink our child welfare policy and practice towards families, especially with young children, whom we would otherwise substantiate as neglectful.

In our newest issue brief in this series– When Brain Science Meets Public Policy: Rethinking Young Child Neglect – we offer a four-point Checklist for Change. It is based in the science of early brain development, and it offers common sense steps that could be taken by child welfare agencies committed to improve their approach to vulnerable young children

After all, babies are only babies once.

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Janice, this is such important work that must be utilized to change
    policy and to support more comprehensive work in pediatrics. One of our larger peds practices is finally adding a social worker to their staff to help with the issues you are addressing. Thank you. Sylvia Echols, ICS board member.

  2. I am pleased that many pediatricians are engaging in the discussion of early brain development and toxic stress. Los Angeles County has developed a comprehensive program to care for children in foster care as well as children who have been abused and neglected and are still in the careof their parents. The clinics have mental health providers, public health nurses and social workers as well. There is still much work to be done for our children and families.

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