Skip to main content

Now live! Explore the program for the upcoming 2024 Global Conference, taking place May 5-8, 2024.

By Supporting Parents, We Boost Child Development

Power of Ideas
By Supporting Parents, We Boost Child Development

Among the many harsh realities revealed by COVID-19 is the overwhelming share of parents in the United States who lack access to the support they need, particularly during the critically important early years of their children’s lives. Indeed, many have to shoulder the enormous responsibility of early childhood care, development, and education on their own, without knowledgeable support or guidance.

Of course, the reality facing parents was tenuous long before the pandemic. As a pediatric surgeon and social scientist who studies children’s early language environments, I am concerned with the utter lack of advice and encouragement available to new parents, particularly when it comes to their role in promoting healthy foundational brain development.

Brain science is clear: learning begins on the first day of life. And the single most important catalyst of healthy brain development in an infant is consistent, nurturing interaction with a parent or caregiver. This means that children’s primary brain architects are their parents.

During the first three years of a child’s life, when more than 1 million neuronal connections are formed every second, parents have an unparalleled opportunity to establish their children’s foundation for lifelong learning. And yet, we do very little as a society to ensure that parents are aware of—or have the opportunity to wield—this considerable power.

The most important catalyst of healthy brain development in an infant is consistent, nurturing interaction with a parent or caregiver.

Research I’ve conducted with colleagues reveals that there is significant variation in what parents know and believe about how babies’ brains develop and what impact caregivers can have on that process. Furthermore, parents who better understand early cognitive growth provide more linguistic inputs and engage in more conversations with their young children—behaviors that are associated with better academic outcomes down the road.

There is no reason that a child’s opportunity to reach their full potential should be curtailed because society has failed to provide their parents with the information, encouragement, and support they need to succeed at the enormously important, challenging, and rewarding task of bringing up a child. Although this imperative is not strictly a medical one, I believe that workers in the healthcare sector—pediatricians in particular—have a powerful and important part to play in helping to meet it.

Well-child visits provide a universal touchpoint to reach new parents who are otherwise left largely on their own. However, the guidance delivered at well-child visits during the first year tends to focus on newborn care, physical growth, and injury prevention. In one study of families in Chicagoland, my colleagues and I found that only about 12 percent of parents heard anything from their pediatricians about how infants learn during the first month of life. This is a missed opportunity. What parents need to know doesn’t end with feeding and diapering. In fact, the pediatrician’s office should be a consistent source of affirmation and information on all aspects of parenting—especially on the essential engagement between parent and child.

Thankfully, there are organizations and clinics across the country that have begun to recognize this opportunity. Programs like Reach Out and Read and HealthySteps, among others, offer powerful examples of what’s possible. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement urging all its members to focus on the importance of safe, stable, and nurturing relationships in promoting healthy development.

Of course, we must do more than provide information to parents. The reality is that far too many parents are living in circumstances that make it difficult, if not impossible, to meet their children’s developmental needs. All the knowledge in the world—and even the fiercest determination—cannot take the place of tangible supports that parents can rely on to make it easier and less costly to care for their children.

The past year has opened our eyes to the enormous weight on the shoulders of parents. As we begin to imagine our post-COVID future, healthcare providers and pediatricians should be ringing alarm bells about the ways in which a return to the status quo ante would put the cognitive and emotional health of our nation’s children at risk. For their part, policymakers should heed that warning—and the overwhelming public support for meaningful reform—and commit to funding a healthcare system and other critical social infrastructure that supports parents and caregivers.