Build the Foundation for a Healthy Life

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GOAL 3:

Build the foundation for a healthy life by investing in early childhood brain development

A child’s first three years offer a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build a healthy brain, develop a curious and creative mind, and lay a strong foundation for a healthy, engaged, and capable community member. Beginning in utero, a baby’s brain is exposed to environmental stimuli that shape the physical structure of the brain. Advances in developmental biology and neuroscience show that positive early experiences and exposures foster optimal brain development, while negative experiences and exposures impair brain development. Our goal is to ensure that children, particularly those in low- income and vulnerable families, have the best chance at a healthy life, by supporting healthy pregnancies and optimal brain development during the first three years.

Infant brains are busy. When positively stimulated, they form 700 to 1,000 new neural connections each second. This literal construction of the brain is irreversible and occurs at the fastest rate in the baby’s first three years of life. We now know that interaction with other humans is essential to this construction process. A baby or toddler in a strong relationship with at least one caring adult will develop language, cognitive skills, and the resilience that allows her to face and overcome adversity with intention and success. She will begin to develop executive function; the abilities to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. And research is now indicating that she will develop physiological structures and metabolic pathways that decrease her chances of developing serious illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression later in life.

If we as a community are successful at building strong brains, we will have established a strong foundation for a healthy life for the newest members of our communities. The babies whose lives we influence are more likely to be successful adults. They will be more able to participate actively in their communities, and to contribute positively to shaping healthy communities. The work we hope to accomplish within this goal is in fact foundational to the creation of healthy communities.

Targeted Outcome 4:

Health systems and families implement leading practices for early childhood brain development during pregnancy and the first 1,000 days of life

This outcome addresses our two-pronged approach to building healthy brains: working through healthcare providers to reach pregnant women and the families of young children, and supporting community-based organizations to help families provide the positive and avoid the negative experiences that determine their children’s physical brain development.

Strategy 8: Build Brain Development - Providers

Support providers to strengthen early childhood brain development

Healthcare providers are an integral part of pregnancy and the early childhood experience for families, and consequently have a unique opportunity to influence healthy brain development. They are well-placed to provide parents with the latest information, effective techniques, and respectful encouragement to optimize development for their infants and toddlers. Providers treating pregnant women and young children can support their patients in having healthy pregnancies, and they can screen for and treat maternal depression. Providers treating babies can conduct developmental screenings as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and can treat or make referrals for treatment where indicated. Providers can also refer pregnant women and new parents to community-based programs that support early childhood brain development. If we are successful in this strategy, we will see a significant increase in the number of clinics actively engaged in screening and treating pregnant women and new mothers for depression; routinely conducting developmental screenings on young children and ensuring treatment where required; and educating and connecting pregnant women and new parents to supportive programs and resources.

Strategy 9: Build Brain Development - Community Organizations

Support community-based organizations to provide training to families for early childhood brain development beginning at or before birth

We will also support community-based organizations that work with pregnant women and families of newborns to help them build strong brains. We know that the greatest influencing factor in early childhood is the parent/child relationship. Research uses the term “serve and return” to capture the essence of positive interactions. When parents are responsive to a child’s needs, a positive “serve and return” interaction occurs. Successful serve and return interactions maximize a child’s communication and social skills and strengthen his/her ability to deal with adverse childhood experiences such as poverty, parental conflict, abuse, or exposure to violence.

While there are many programs addressing the important topics of school readiness, parenting techniques, and early literacy, our interest is specifically focused on physiological brain development prenatally through age three. Within this strategy, we hope to support community-based organizations that embrace the importance of early childhood brain development and prioritize work with families beginning before or at the birth of their children.