Bringing baby home project an in-depth discussion

Approximately 3.6 million babies are born to couples every year in the United States of America. We are concerned about the development of cognitive and emotional intelligence in these babies. We know from research that for close to 70% of couples there is a precipitous drop in the quality of their relationship in the baby’s first year of life. This drop in relationship quality is accompanied by a dramatic increase in conflict and hostility between parents. Not only does relationship conflict increase, but also we now know that post-partum depression in mothers and fathers is a lot more common than was once thought. Based on research on marital interaction and depression, we now suspect that about half of that depression is due to relationship conflict between parents, which often is present even during pregnancy.

We are concerned about the influences on the baby even before birth. The mother’s emotions during pregnancy have a striking effect on the developing fetus. For example, if mothers listen to music they like through earphones, sounds the fetus cannot hear, there is more fetal movement seen on ultrasound recordings than if the mother listens to music she doesn’t like. This effect is conveyed entirely through the pregnant mother’s emotions. The major impact during pregnancy on her emotions is the quality of her relationship with her partner.

After the baby’s birth the effects become even more powerful. The research we have done in our laboratory, and the laboratories of other researchers, shows how parental conflict and parental depression is often imparted to the newborn baby. The parents’ relationship with one another is clearly the emotional crucible that holds the newborn. It shapes the baby’s mind and heart in very remarkable ways that have now been documented by research. There is no toy that can be designed that is as interesting to the baby as the parents’ faces, and no sound as interesting to the baby as the parents’ voices. The baby is “pre-wired,” ready to interact with its parents.

How parents interact with the young infant will have a profound effect on its neurological and brain development. Parents who are getting along with one another and handling stress well play with their infants in a coordinated fashion, and are emotionally sensitive to the infant’s cues. In this case the baby learns the vital lesson that what she does can have a profound impact on her world, changing the immediate emotional behavior of parents. The baby is very sensitively tuned to detect and respond to her parents’ positive and negative emotions.

Because the baby is so finely tuned to parental emotions, however, these positive effects on the baby are easily disrupted and distorted. For example, even mild parental depression has a major impact on babies’ belief that what they do and feel can have an effect on their world. A depressed, unresponsive parent teaches an infant to also be unresponsive, emotionally withdrawn, and joyless. Conflicted parents ignore even strong signals from the baby, either by becoming withdrawn or by over-stimulating the infant and not correcting what they do in response to how the infant reacts. The end results in most cases is the tragedy of infants who have lost a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, babies who do not explore, and who experience novel events like soap bubbles slowly rising in a room with profound wariness and withdrawal. Research using infant brain-wave patterns show that the infant of a depressed parent rapidly learns to process experiences in the same depressed, withdrawn pattern that her depressed parents have. This is a tragedy in the making.

If there is no intervention in the first year of the baby’s life, these patterns in the baby statistically predict in preschool children a lowered IQ, an inability to focus attention, a reduced ability to self soothe when upset, and a dramatic reduction in social competence with peers (Hay, 1997). In many cases, then, the infant’s emotional and cognitive development has become stunted by the negative emotional crucible of the parents’ negative emotions. For example, researchers have studied how the brain is affected by depression. Depressed adults process events with a right frontal dominance that is characteristic of emotions that make us withdraw from the world, the emotions of sadness and fear. The three-month-old babies of depressed parents show the same brain wave patterns, even when novel and positive events occur, like soap bubbles rising. If there is no intervention, these brain wave patterns have a strong statistical possibility of becoming stable in the baby.

The good news is that we think we are now on the right track toward being able to reverse all of this. With a two-day educational workshop for parents in the last trimester of pregnancy and a support group of other pregnant couples, we now know that we can change the emotional crucible that holds the new baby so that it is far more loving and far more emotionally sensitive to the baby. We have developed these interventions in conjunction with the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.

Right now in America, hospitals expend a great deal of energy getting couples ready for just one day of their lives, the delivery of the baby. But once they bring the baby home, they are on their own. We are changing that. We plan to create national institutional change in America’s hospitals so that nurses and family life educators will prepare couples for what they need to know when they bring their baby home. We call our program Bringing Baby HomeIt includes a workshop and a support group.

Our Bringing Baby Home workshop and support group focus on three things:

  • Equipping the couple with the knowledge and skills they will need to deal with the inevitable changes in their relationship once the baby arrives, including dealing with conflict and maintaining their own intimacy.
  • Keeping fathers involved with their baby. Research has shown that a warm, emotionally available father is the best predictor of how the baby will turn out as an adult. Fathers are extremely important in the infant’s intellectual and emotional development, and they provide things that mothers do not provide
  • Knowledge of the baby’s development and how to play with young infants and be responsive to their emotional nonverbal signals.

Ours is the only such educational program in the world, and our early data suggest that it is working. After the baby’s first year of life, couples who have been through our program do not have a decline in relationship satisfaction, they do not have much hostility between them, and they do not suffer the depression, but couples in our control group do suffer all these ill effects of the transition to parenthood. Our initial results examining a small pilot sample suggest that the Bringing Baby Home workshop also has benefits for parent-baby interactions. Compared to control families, those who participated in our program showed: better parenting skills reflected through more positive baby affect, and higher quality father involvement evident through interactions during father-baby play.

We must further demonstrate, through solid scientific research methods, that this intervention also has a powerful effect on infant and child development. Based on our initial successful findings, the Swedish Medical Center has starting offering our Bringing Baby Home workshops. Once we show that this is the case, we will have the data that can convince the hospitals in America to adopt our program. Our goal is not only to show that our intervention benefits the almost two hundred families in our study. We plan to turn this intervention into a national movement that will affect the 3.6 million babies every year born to couples.

Bringing Baby Home workshops at the Swedish Medical Center

If you are interested in obtaining more information about the Bringing Baby Home workshops offered at the Swedish Medical Center, or to sign up for a workshop, you can call the Swedish Medical Center health education line at (206) 386-2502, or go to the Swedish Medical Center Health Classes site.