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Pediatricians and prevention of toxic stress

Posted by Claudia M Gold  June 2, 2013 07:48 PM

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The Harvard Center on the Developing Child has produced a new video: Building Adult Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes: A Theory of Change. The video wisely identifies the need to support the adults in a child's life in order to promote long-term health, both physical and emotional. It points to the abundance of scientific evidence showing the need for providing safe and secure relationships in early childhood to reach these goals. Exposure to stress in the absence of such safe, secure relationships is termed "toxic stress."

As pediatricians have regular contact with young children and their families, the need to translate this research in to the clinical setting of pediatric practice is clear. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has embraced this task. The 2013 AAP national conference titled Early Brain and Child Development: Building Brains, Building Futures, will present the science of early childhood.

In addition, concurrent with the release of the above video are a number of publications addressing the need to integrate the research in to practice. One article, Listening to the Baby's Brain to Reduce Toxic Stress: Changing the Pediatric Check Up to Reduce Toxic Stress  describes new interventions.

Purposeful Parenting materials, for example, emphasize “face time” with infants, a type of “serve and return” interaction fundamental to the wiring of the brain: When an infant smiles, the caregiver should smile back—and should do so repeatedly throughout the day. When infants learn early on that smiling, then cooing, then words, are the best way to get attention, they keep using those strategies. But if face time fails to occur frequently enough, infants may learn less healthy ways—such as crying or whining—to get the attention or support they crave. The lack of something as simple as face time can lead to more infant stress and less healthy ways to cope with stress in the future.
This recommendation appears to draw on the powerful research of Ed Tronick showing the distress caused to an infant when a caregiver presents an unresponsive "still-face." His research has shown that when a caregiver is attuned with an infant in 30% of interactions, and if the remaining misattunements are recognized and repaired, the child develops a positive affective core-  an ability to experience joy and connection.

Given these findings, the AAP recommendation is a good one. But most caregivers intuitively provide this attunement without needing anyone to tell them what to do. They naturally experience what D. W. Winnicot termed "primary maternal preoccupation," acting as what he called the "ordinary devoted mother." When they do not, simply telling them to smile at their baby will likely be ineffective. This is where the link to the video comes in. To "build adult capacities" in this situation, there needs to be an opportunity to listen to that parent, who may be struggling with postpartum depression, may be socially isolated, or may herself have been abused.

Fortunately the AAP model also looks at the larger context. The director of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Yale University is quoted:
In order to make these changes, Weitzman says, pediatricians will need broad systemic changes to support them, including better medical training, payment systems, treatment options, and help to coordinate care.
What is needed is space and time to listen. That includes listening to the pediatricians who are themselves under tremendous pressures. This need is addressed my book Keeping Your Child in Mind, whose  second chapter  is titled "Strengthening the Secure Base: Listening to Parents." The book demonstrates this idea of supporting adults with the aim of supporting children, showing what this approach looks like from infancy to adolescence, as seen from the front lines of pediatric practice. It concludes:
 If those who care for children and families on the front lines have the time to develop these relationships, if there is a strong system of mental health care to support families who are struggling and a medical education system that encourages clinicians to listen to parents’ stories, we will be well on our way. The image comes to mind of a set of Russian dolls. When the health care system allows the primary care clinician time to listen to the whole of parents’ experience and to support their inherent wisdom and intuition, parents are enabled to be fully present with their child. In other words, the system holds the clinician, who holds the parents, who hold the children. 

Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »

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