The Human Brain’s Need For a “Social Womb” During Infancy

Picture 2In this article “The Human Brain’s Need for a Social Womb During Infancy” J. Ronald Lally tells us why the young brain needs a protected and nurtured experience equivalent to the protection a fetus receives in the womb.

Because of the lasting impact of early brain structuring, Lally argues that whether a baby is cared for at home or in child care, the conditions under which the infant’s brain develops must be taken seriously. Lally says “child development research points to the need for a social womb that provides the infant with the opportunity to 1) develop secure bonds with people who care for them, 2) to engage in protected and encouraged social, intellectual and communicative exploration, and 3) build a positive self-identity and sense of self.”

In his summary of policy recommendations to support a social womb, Lally describes the importance and goals of: paid leave, well baby care and high quality infant care.

Download the full article in pdf format: The Human Brain’s Need for a Social Womb During Infancy FINALApril2014.

You can also find more information on the “Social Womb” concept in J. Ronald Lally’s latest book, For Our Babies: Ending the Invisible Neglect of America’s Infants.

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Paid Family Leave In California: Need for Outreach

African American Mother kissing young infant fshutterstock_72019543Most American workers have very few options when it comes to taking time off to bond with a new born, adopted or foster child. National legislation, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), only ensures 12 weeks of unpaid leave to those who are covered by the law.  Due to restrictions in who is covered, 40% of U.S. workers are not. Of those who are covered by FMLA, but don’t take the unpaid leave, almost half say it’s because they can’t afford to take unpaid leave.  Only 11 percent of private sector workers and 17 percent of public workers have access to paid maternity leave through their employers.

In 2004, there was some relief offered to California parents when the state became the first of three U.S. states to implement a Paid Family Leave program (New Jersey and Rhode Island are the other two). In California, workers contribute to a State Disability fund which allows them to be eligible to receive up to 55% of their wages for up to six weeks to bond with a new born, adopted or foster child or to care for a seriously ill family member.

Some of the benefits of Paid Family Leave in California include:

  • Mothers who took paid leave breastfed their babies for twice as long as the median duration of new mothers.
  • The proportion of new fathers taking paid family leave for bonding increased significantly, suggesting that the program increases bonding opportunities for the whole family.
  • New mothers who are able to take leave after the birth of their babies experience lower rates of post-partum depression
  • Workers reported a positive effect on their ability to care for a a new child and are more able to find reliable child care before they return to work.

While California’s Paid Family Leave program has shown great benefits to families who have used it, low awareness about the program, particularly among young adults, Latinos and low-wage workers, is keeping some families from these rewards.

This year, on the 10th anniversary of the implementation of Paid Family Leave in California, the California Work & Family Coalition (a project of Next Generation) is working with partner organizations to urge that the Employment Development Department raise awareness of the paid family leave program by using a portion of the State Disability fund, which currently is $2.4 billion dollars, for effective education and awareness.  For more information about California’s Paid Leave program and the efforts to increase awareness, go to the Paid Family Leave CA’s website.

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News Roundup March 31st

Picture 2Senate Passes Child Care and Community Block Grant Reauthorization On March 13, 2014, the Senate voted 96 to 2 to pass S. 1086, the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014 (CCDBG), reauthorizing the the CCDBG Act of 1990 through Fiscal Year 2020.  The bill was lauded as an example of how the Senate can function as a bipartisan legislative body.  CCDBG is designed to help low-income parents with child care when they return to the workforce. A portion of the funds are also for activities related to improving quality of care such as provider training.  The new version of the law would set higher standards for child care providers.  It would also outline improvements to the quality of childcare programs, such as requiring states to set aside a larger percentage of funding to improve program quality. For amendments and more information about the bill, click here.

Infant Sleep (White Noise) Machines Potentially Harmful to Babies’ Hearing A new study by researchers from the University of Toronto measured sound level output of infant sleep machines in hospitals. The research findings suggest that consistent use of these machines could put infants at risk for sound induced hearing loss and auditory development. Read more about the study here.

Genes Play a Significant Role in Parenting and Parenting is Also Influenced by the Child’s Behavior A study involving more than 20,000 families has been conducted by two Michigan State University psychologists. The study involved a statistical analysis of 56 scientific studies from around the world that have studied parenting behavior. The results of this analysis show that parenting styles stem from many factors, including genetic influences. One outstanding finding was that children’s own characteristics play an important role in all areas of parenting. Read more about the research here.

Infections Caused by a Specific Type of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria are on the Rise in U.S. Children  According to a new study conducted by a team of researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and published in the Journal of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, a specific type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are on the rise in U.S. children. The bacteria, though still rare, are increasing and is being found in children of all ages, especially those 1-5 years old. The findings raise concerns that oral treatment options may not be effective the way they have been in the past. Researchers are calling for more needed research to define risk factors for these infections in children. Find more information about this study here.

Significant Depletion of Folic Acid in Pregnant Women Caused by High UV Exposure This recent study from Queensland University found High Rates of UV exposure significantly depleted folate levels in pregnant women and those women planning to become pregnant. “This is concerning as the benefits of folic acid are well-known, with health professionals urging young women to take a folic acid supplement prior to and during pregnancy,” researcher Professor Michael Kimlin said. For more information click here.

This News Roundup was compiled and co-authored by Jean Kurnik, M.A.


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New Findings: Early Childhood Investments Substantially Boost Adult Health!

Toddler girl facial close upEconomist James Heckman and colleagues conducted a new analysis of the Abecedarian Project, one of the oldest and most cited U.S. early childhood (infancy through age 5) intervention programs. Their research report, published on March 27th, 2014 in Science, shows positive effects on adult heath.

The researchers collected recent data to find that children who were assigned to the early educational intervention group in the Abecedarian Project have significantly better health now (in their mid-30s) than those in the control group. The findings show the potential of quality early childhood programs that incorporate health and nutrition to prevent disease and promote adult health.

The policy recommendations in the report include the following:

  • Recognize that quality, birth-to-five early childhood development programs can and should be used to prevent adult chronic disease.
  • Make quality early childhood development an integral part of ongoing healthcare reform, particularly among families receiving Medicaid and CHIP.
  • Understand that quality early childhood programs start with effective perinatal care for mothers and begin at birth for children.
  • Integrate early health and nutrition into early childhood development programs. Early health is critical for later adult health outcomes.

To download a 2-page summary of the findings and their implications, view a two minute video on the topic, or to read the full report, visit the Heckman website.

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News Roundup March 4th

lily-totoro-colorAlcohol Consumption in Early Stages of Pregnancy Has Harmful Effect on Placenta

Scientists have identified two harmful effects of consuming alcohol during the early stages of a pregnancy: Damage to the placenta and reduction of the important amino acid called ‘Taurine’ that is delivered through the placenta from the mother to her baby. “This research also suggests that women who are trying to conceive should not drink, as the damage caused by alcohol can happen very early on in pregnancy — perhaps before a woman knows she is pregnant”, said John Aplin, a professor of reproductive biomedicine at Tommy’s Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre at The University of Manchester. Read more here.

New Guidelines by The American Dental Association

As reported this month in the New York Times, the A.D.A. has issued new guidelines for fluoride toothpaste use with our youngest children. The A.D.A. has previously recommended that children begin to use a pea size amount of fluoride paste beginning at 24 months. Due to a rising number of cavities in very young children, the A.D.A. has changed the recommendation to a “tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste” twice daily once teeth erupt. Read full recommendation here.

Researchers Warn of Chemical Impacts on Babies

In 2006 Scientists identified five chemicals that could be reliably classified as developmental neurotoxicants: lead, methylmercury, arsenic, poly-chlorinated biphenyls, and toluene. A recent study by the same team of researchers has led to their assertion that even more neurotoxicants remain undiscovered.  They say that untested chemicals should not be presumed to be safe to brain development and that many chemicals could have damaging effects on the fetal and early childhood brain. They propose an update of the 38-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act and a global prevention strategy to protect the next generation of brains.  Read more here.

 This News Roundup was compiled and co-authored by Jean Kurnik, M.A.

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News Roundup February 19th

Administration Officials Review the State of the Union and Discuss Opportunities in Early Childhood Learning

“The reason we’re here is every child — every single child in our country — deserves to have a fair chance to live up to his or her God-given potential,” _Hilary Clinton

As over 1,100 early learning stakeholders met on February 4 and participated on a call regarding the State of the Union address, early learning and development efforts, and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, Hillary Clinton addressed a group of parents and children at the East Harlem Council for Human Services to discuss the importance of early childhood initiatives such as reading to young children as part of her “Too Small to Fail” initiative. Secretary Arne Duncan opened the call regarding President Obama’s State of the Union address by saying a 3-pronged strategy will be used on the early childhood initiatives by working to maximize existing resources; working with Congress to find bipartisan solutions; and partnering with mayors, governors, the private and non-profit sectors and others. Secretary Sebelius discussed connecting Early Head Start with childcare through the new round of Early Head Start competitive grants and Deputy Assistant Secretary Smith assured callers that her office is doing all it can to support reauthorizing home visiting programs. For more information on Too Small to Fail, including the new collaboration with Univision, go to:

An Overactive Immune System in Pregnant Women Could be Putting Males at Risk for Adult Brain Disorders A new study published online this month shows that fetal mice, especially males, show signs of brain damage lasting into adulthood when exposed to inflammatory immune responses in the womb. These findings suggest that some neurological diseases in humans could result from this same exposure. “Now we wonder if this could explain why more males have diseases such as autism and schizophrenia, which appear to have neurobiological causes”, says study leader Irina Burd, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of gynecology/obstetrics and neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the Integrated Research Center for Fetal Medicine. Click here for the abstract.

Illness During Pregnancy and Prenatal Allergen Exposure May be Predictors of a Child’s Risk of Asthma and Allergy A study conducted on pregnant women and their children in Germany and published in the February issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology shows that a baby will have a higher risk of asthma with a higher number of colds and viral and bacterial infections experienced in the mother during pregnancy. “In addition, these same children that had early exposure to allergens, such as house dust and pet dander, had increased odds of becoming sensitized by age five,” said allergist Mitch Grayson, MD, Annals deputy editor and fellow of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). Read more here.

For Infants, Stress May be “Caught” New research shows that babies show physiological changes that correspond to the contagious stress they are “catching” from their mothers. This study involved 69 mothers and their infants with cardiovascular sensors recording positive and negative feedback from each. The findings show that the infant’s response tracked the mother’s response, physically communicating their responses to their mother’s emotions during stress. The abstract is available here.

This News Roundup was compiled and co-authored by Jean Kurnik, M.A.

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News Roundup January 29th

newbornExposure to Nicotine in the Womb Increases Long-Term Risk of Obesity Recent research shows exposure to nicotine from either smoking or NRT (nicotine replacement therapy i.e., gum, patches, nasal spray and lozenges) in the womb, causes an increased risk of obesity and other long-term adverse reactions. The study was led by Daniel Hardy, PhD, assistant professor in the Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Physiology and Pharmacology of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. Read more here.

Cannabis Use During Pregnancy Negatively Impacts Brain Development A recent study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet by an international team of researchers has shown that the effects of Cannabis consumption during pregnancy can endanger fetal brain development with long-lasting effects after birth. The study was published this month in Embo Journal. Read more here.

Marker Identified for Life-threatening Disease in Preterm Babies A life-threatening bowel infection called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is the most common serious gastrointestinal disorder among preterm newborns. Now Researchers at Loyola University Health System have identified a marker to identify those infants who are at risk for the infection. “This information will allow us to better care for these premature infants,” said Jonathan Muraskas, MD, study investigator and co-medical director of Loyola’s neonatal ICU. These findings were published in the latest issue of the Journal of Pediatric Surgery. Read more here.



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Quick and Helpful Resources on Early Brain Development

Lemon_19“The parents in our program are busy. I know they care about early brain development but they don’t have much free time to read about it. What do you suggest we share with them?”

This question was asked during one of the For Our Babies Bookclub discussions with Dr. Lally. Because we think it’s a question others might have as well, we wanted to share the list we compiled here. What follows are some quick, and hopefully helpful, resources on early brain development.

1. Short videos produced by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard:

Three Core Concepts in Early Development (a three part series)
  1. Experiences Build Brain Architecture (1:58 minutes)
  2. Serve & Return Interaction Shapes Brain Circuitry (1:43 minutes)
  3. Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development (1:52 minutes)
Brain Hero (2:59 minutes)

These videos can be found on the Center on the Developing Child’s website: click here.

2. On Wested’s Program for Infant Toddler Care website there are downloadable resources in their library as well as things you can order. The “Next Step” DVD for instance is a great one for understanding “the infant’s curriculum”. Other DVDs that people report as being helpful for parents are “Flexible, Fearful, and Fiesty” that looks at different temperaments and “Discoveries of Infancy” which covers the six learning themes of infancy. “Ages of Infancy” is another one that can be helpful for parents to learn more about the three stages of development (young, mobile and older infants). These resources can be found in the PITC library.

3. ZERO TO THREE has wonderful resources as well. Their interactive Brain Map for instance is a neat one. You select an age and then scroll over the brain to find interesting questions and answers and examples of what you can do to support development. Check it out here.

4. ZERO TO THREE also has a policy network that’s a great way to get consolidated information and participate in national issues concerning babies. Here’s what they say about it “The ZERO TO THREE Policy Network is a vehicle for professionals, like you, to use your knowledge and expertise to impact public policy so that all babies have good health, strong families and positive early learning experiences. Inspired by the successes and accomplishments of the Better Baby Care Campaign, the ZERO TO THREE Policy Network is coordinated by the ZERO TO THREE Policy Center.” You can join this here — scroll to the middle and click on join the policy network now.

5. On the For Our Babies website we have a downloadable resource that is great for dispelling myths about early brain development. It’s called the Baby Brain, Ten Myths. Click here to download this resource: forourbabies_brainmyths.

Hopefully you will find these resources helpful. What other resources do you use to share information about babies? Let us know at We’d love to share them with others as we continue our national discussion around promoting healthy development of babies.

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News Roundup January 13th

Picture 2A New Study Suggests a Father’s Diet and Folate (Vitamin B9) Levels Before Conception May Be as Important to Infant Health and Development as That of the Mother A recent study from McGill University using mice with low paternal dietary folate levels showed alterations in mouse sperm epigenome associated with negative pregnancy outcomes. This study shows for the first time that the folate levels in fathers may be just as important as those in mothers, suggesting that fathers should pay as much attention to their lifestyles and diets as mothers should before conception. Read more here.

Link Between Fear of Childbirth and Postpartum Depression Women with a history of depression are known to be at a higher risk of postpartum depression. Recent research from the University of Eastern Finland has observed a link between a (diagnosed) fear of childbirth in a woman with no history of depression and postpartum depression: nearly tripling the risk. Read more about the study here.

Depression in Pregnant Mothers May Alter the Pattern of Brain Development in Their Babies/Risk Reduction through Screening and Treatment In a recent study led by Dr. Anqi Qiu from the National University of Singapore researchers found abnormal wiring of the brain’s amygdala (the area of the brain that deals with regulation of emotion and stress) in infants born to depressed mothers. “Attention to maternal health during pregnancy is an extremely high priority for society for many reasons,” added Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. “The notion that maternal depression might influence the brain development of their babies is very concerning. The good news is that this risk might be reduced by systematic screening of pregnant women for depression and initiating effective treatment.” Read more here.

Longer Maternity Leave Lowers Women’s Risk of Postpartum Depression A recent study out of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health found that women who return to work sooner than six months after giving birth to a child, have an increased risk of postpartum depressive symptoms. This study is the first to look at the relationship between length of maternity leave and a woman’s postpartum depressive symptoms over the course of the entire year after childbirth. Read here.

Responding to One-On-One ‘Baby Talk’ Helps Master More Words Researchers at the University of Washington and University of Connecticut looked closely at the at the communication between parent and babies. They compared speech in groups versus one-on-one and regular speaking voices versus exaggeration and animation in baby talk styles. “What our analysis shows is that the prevalence of baby talk in one-on-one conversations with children is linked to better language development, both concurrent and future,” said Patricia Kuhl, co-author and co-director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. Read more about this research here.

This News Roundup was compiled and co-authored by Jean Kurnik, M.A.


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News Roundup December 30th

African American Mother kissing young infant fshutterstock_72019543Inadequate Pregnancy Weight Gain Increases Risk of Infant Mortality
According to a recent study out of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, not gaining enough weight during pregnancy can put babies at risk. Researchers examined the relationship between the mother’s body mass index, gestational weight gain before and during pregnancy, and infant mortality rates. They found that, except for in the heaviest women, too little weight gain during pregnancy increases the risk for infant mortality in the first year.
About 25 percent of the 159,000 women in the study gained an inadequate amount of weight, while another 41 percent gained too much. Mothers who were below ideal weight pre-pregnancy and gained too little weight during pregnancy had six times the normal rate of infant mortality. For women who were overweight before pregnancy, inadequate pregnancy weight gain was associated with two times the risk of infant mortality. Only babies born to obese mothers were protected from the effects of inadequate weight gain during pregnancy. The study confirms that only about one third of U.S. women gain the amount of weight recommended by the Institute of Medicine for their body size. Read more about this study here.


Postnatal Home Visiting: Shown to Reduce Infant Emergency Care Visits 

A new Duke University study shows that even a few nurse visits to newborn babies’ homes can save lots of money due to a decrease in infant emergency care. The study looked at the results of a program called “Durham Connects” that provides visits by nurses to the homes of newborns. The infants served by the program had 50 percent less emergency hospital care. This is a significant cost savings considering the average investment was only $700 per child and emergency care can cost thousands of dollars. For every dollar spent on nurse home visiting for newborns, three dollars were saved in healthcare costs. This meant the program paid for itself within the infant’s first six months of life.

The Durham Connects program showed preventative benefits (from a few visits from nurses who then connect patients to other community services) extended to the privately insured, those with no insurance and low income families.  “For a relatively small investment early in a child’s life, the reward is significant”, say study authors Kenneth Dodge, director of Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy, and Ben Goodman, a Duke research scientist. “Babies don’t come with instruction manuals, and we like to think of the Durham Connects program as maybe being that instruction manual,” Goodman said. Read more about the study here.


Lactation Consultation Increases Breastfeeding Rates Among Women Who Usually Resist

Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have found in two separate trials that meetings with a lactation consultant encourages women typically resistant to breastfeeding to do so, at least for a few months, which is long enough to reap some of the important health benefits. The large majority of the women enrolled in the two trials were mothers who are known to have some of the lowest rates of breastfeeding.  In both trials when the women were regularly encouraged, given instruction and support for breastfeeding they were more than four times as likely to exclusively breastfeed their infant at one month and nearly three times more likely to do so at three months, compared with the control group.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months, followed by continued breastfeeding for one year or longer as other foods are introduced. However, fewer than 75 percent of U.S. babies are breastfed at all and fewer than half are still being breastfed at six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Health benefits of breastfeeding can include lower obesity rates, reduced incidence of ear infections and stomach illness and, for mothers, a reduced risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and pre-menopausal breast cancer.  Read more about this study here.


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