• Dr. Ryan Hassan MD MPH

Positive Parenting Tips for New and Expecting Parents

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Early relational health is a field of pediatric healthcare that focuses on the importance of building strong, nurturing relationships between children and their parents in order to promote long term health.

Decades of study have shown that our early life experiences set the foundation for health and wellness throughout our lifetime. We know that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), like losing a loved one, being abused or neglected, or witnessing violence in the home or community, can lead to a Toxic Stress response that physically changes the way a baby's genome is expressed, and the way their brain develops, leading to impaired executive decision making and long term planning, and a hyperactive stress response that can make even normal every day events incredibly challenging to deal with. We also know that social factors like income level, access to stable jobs and quality education and healthcare, and discrimination, which we refer to as the social determinants of health, predispose to ACEs, and also to the same kinds of poor health outcomes caused by the Toxic Stress response.

Children who experience more ACEs, or live in high risk situations, are at significantly increased risk for almost every significant health problem we face today, including ADHD, bullying, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, obesity, school failure, anxiety, depression, and suicide, as well as addiction to nicotine, alcohol, and drugs. Later in life, these children are at increased risk for diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, heart attack, and stroke, as well as many other causes of early death.

These traumatic experiences are also intergenerational. Just as poverty is often passed down from parents to children, childhood trauma can also be inherited. Parents who have experienced ACEs may find it more challenging to deal with the many stresses of parenthood, as their "fight or flight" response may be more easily triggered and more challenging to turn off. These parents may be less prepared to build positive relationships with their children if they did not have the chance to develop positive relationships with their own parents. Furthermore, the science of epigenetics is teaching us that the changes that trauma causes in our brains may even be passed on genetically to our children.

Fortunately, these harmful health outcomes can be averted. As we've learned more about the root causes of these pervasive threats to our wellness, we've also learned the most effective way to mitigate and fight those threats, and that is by building strong relationships with our children to help them become resilient to the adversities they will face in childhood and for the rest of their lives. In the first five years of your baby's life, her brain undergoes more rapid and drastic change than it will for the remainder of her life, pruning trillions of neurons and building and reinforcing the neural connections that will become the filter through which she perceives all of her later experiences. The most important job of every parent is to help make sure that they help their child build the right neural connections.

How can you help your baby build the right neural connections? It's a one step process: Play with your child. When you play with your child you teach her social, motor, and language skills more effectively than any toy, app, or video ever could. More important than those skills, though, you also teach her that she has someone in her life who is crazy about her, and whom she can rely on to support her through all of life's challenges. Perhaps the most important aspect of neurology for every parent to learn is the idea that neurons that fire together wire together. Neural pathways in the brain are similar to the muscles in our arms and legs. The one we use get reinforced, becoming stronger and more effective; while the ones that we don't use whither away and become weak from neglect. These connections begin developing even from the moment your child is born. Your newborn baby needs to feel your skin, to see your face, and to hear your voice to help her develop a sense of location and security in the world. Every moment that you spend being physically present with your baby, you are helping her become more resilient, and protecting her from physical and mental health problems when she is older.

This incredibly powerful impact that positive parenting has on our children's long term health also means that parents can give themselves permission to relax. As every parent knows, and all expecting parents will quickly find out, there is no end to the number of experts, friends, family, and even complete strangers who will insist on telling you the best way to raise your baby; the best way to feed her, to bathe her, or to sleep train her. But the science of child development has shown us that children whose parents are present and involved, and provide consistent love and care for them will be able to bounce back from even the most traumatic experiences that life can throw at them, including the pain of losing loved ones, or the social isolation we've all felt during the COVID-19 pandemic. That's why my first piece of advice to parents is to play with and be present with their child at every chance they get, and my second piece of advice is to try not to worry too much about the rest of it; because a child with a loving parent will thrive no matter how they are sleep trained.

If you're not sure how to play with your new baby, check out the app Small Moments, Big Impact. It was designed by medical professionals with the goal of helping parents manage the stress of having a newborn, while also building strong, healthy relationships with their babies.

If you have more questions about how to keep your baby healthy, let your pediatrician know at your child's next well visit, or schedule a virtual telemedicine visit right now through our website!

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