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Anne Mosle: This is your brain on parenting

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We have learned so much about the powerful brain burst moments in the early years of life and the impact toxic stress, trauma, and poverty have during this critical period for babies. Research shows a baby’s brain can double in size by the first year and by the child’s fifth birthday, 95 percent of their total brain growth has taken place.

What we now know, thanks to the work of Dr. Sarah Watamura, Dr. Pilyoung Kim, Tiffany Phu, and Andrew Erhart from the University of Denver in Two Open Windows: Part II, is that adults transitioning to parenthood are also experiencing brain bursts. In fact, all caregivers, regardless of biological connection to their baby, experience brain developments as they become parents, like learning if a baby’s cry means they are hungry or needs a diaper change. The science now calls us to think Mom Plus and extend proven supports like home visits and stress-reduction classes to fathers, adoptive parents, and other adults who take on the primary parenting responsibilities for a young child.

It is the act of transitioning to parenthood, whether a biological parent or not, that opens a time-limited window where both new parent and baby are especially receptive to being shaped by their environments. It is a window of opportunity if handled respectfully and intentionally, where we can support and set families on a path to health and well-being. Doing this for parents, caregivers and babies together in this early window will pay off in the short-term by helping parents and children cope with stress and, in the long-term, by setting children on a path to be successful in school and later in life.

What is clear is that we need to support all adults who are becoming parents. Here are three things policymakers, practitioners, and businesses can embrace to support families in growing stronger and more resilient.

Time for a Mom Plus Plan. Our approach must be both-and, not either-or. Let’s apply the research findings highlighted by Dr. Watamura and Dr. Kim and create robust, inclusive policies and supports that double-down on moms as well as bring in fathers, grandparents, adoptive, and nonbiological parents too. Check out the Alameda County, California Fathers Corps for clear steps toward a Mom Plus Plan – seven principles to support dads as parents too.

Modernize antiquated workplace mindsets and polices, include all parenting adults. Fathers, aunties, and grandparent guardians experience the same brain changes as they transition to parenting but often with less support. Nonbiological parents include adoptive and same sex couples as well. Too many workplaces offer maternal leave rather than parental leave, and many community programs are geared only to moms. Family Values @ Work shares the “faces of paid leave,” people striving to care for their families without falling off an economic cliff. We need to enable anyone in the parenting role to spend significant time in the early years with their children as it assists with the brain development most beneficial to both. As a society, we can learn a lot from African American fathers who on average spend more time with their children. Black fathers (70%) were most likely to have bathed, dressed, diapered, or helped their children use the toilet every day compared with white (60%) and Hispanic fathers (45%), a model all fathers should follow. (source: www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr071.pdf)

Find ways to lower stress, particularly toxic stress permanently, and especially as we address the impacts of both COVID and racism. Our top job: consider how to prevent or minimize toxic stress that can undermine parenting. Toxic stress is more than regular stress. It is stress that happens in the context of low support. Combatting stressors like racism or a global pandemic also take a toll. When new parents experience toxic stress, it taxes the neuro system needed to figure out a baby’s needs. Supporting new parents, especially those who have experienced trauma, will give them the wherewithal to buffer their children from stress and navigate tough situations. We need to align our mental health systems in more equitable ways, including mental health screening and support to process trauma for all transitioning to parenthood. When brain changes may not happen naturally because parents are suffering from toxic stress, there are programs that show how we can help nature take its course. At Northwestern University, Darius Tandon has developed Mothers and Babies and Fathers and Babies, two national programs that work with moms and dads to help them prepare mentally and physically for parenthood. Proven programs, like Tandon’s, use two-generation approaches that target adult mental health to cultivate well-being and enhance parent-child relationships.

Embracing a two-generation approach for infants and parents and leveraging the emerging brain science is a gamechanger in how we design services, supports, and care for families during this critical moment of transitioning to parenthood. The science shows why common-sense policies like equitable paid family leave for all families, and early supports like home-visiting that connect new parents to new learning or education opportunities that will widen the two open windows parenthood unlocks. Parenthood changes everything – including your brain. It’s a “no-brainer” – an opportunity we don’t want to miss.

Anne Mosle is executive director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute.


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