Reader View: Early childhood home visits have value

Susan Herrera

Dr. Bruce Perry, national early childhood trauma expert and keynote speaker at the recent First Born conference, emphasized the power of early childhood and importance of home visiting programs. “We are the first generation to have the science to truly understand how children’s health and brain development go together and the mechanisms by which we learn,” he said. “This gives us the opportunity to affect policy and change in society.”

“Home visiting” is a program strategy designed to promote child well-being through the delivery of a variety of informational, educational, developmental and support services to families. It would be a shame for good practice to become jeopardized by misinformation, and it seems that some clarification is needed.

New Mexico has several models of home-visiting programs serving communities throughout the state. The LANL Foundation chose to develop the First Born program as a promising practice for the last seven years to see if we could bring about significant change for our children ages prenatal to 3.

Home visiting in New Mexico is funded by several sources including private philanthropy as well as government through the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department. Programs are run by teams of trained healthcare workers and parent educators who are caring, culturally sensitive and supportive of children and families’ individual needs. Only cases of documented abuse or judicial proceedings would children need possible outside advocacy and protection involving home visitors from CYFD or another governmental agency.

The First Born home-visiting program is free, voluntary, curriculum-based and relationship-centered beginning prenatally for women pregnant for the first time and first-time families and their newborns, including adopted babies, until the child is 3 years old. The program is based on research showing that children’s success in school and life is built on the foundation of nurturing relationships, positive experiences and skills children develop in the critical first three years.

Home-visiting services are “universal,” meaning available to parents regardless of economic status, education level or life circumstances, not just to those considered “at risk.” Services are never mandatory. Parents voluntarily choose to participate, and they determine individual learning priorities and goals.

First Born builds a trusting relationship between parents and home visitors. What parent wouldn’t benefit from a knowledgeable, unbiased, caring resource to answer questions and guide them through their child’s health and development, postpartum depression, breastfeeding, nutrition, discipline, the “terrible twos”?

Positive experiences with a primary caregiver early in life — including touch, proximity, responsiveness, sensory simplicity and relational continuity — create sensations of pleasure and safety, decrease physiological distress and allow for patterns of self-regulating to develop. Home-visiting programs promote healthy, nurturing, stimulating environments that build resilient children who are better learners and develop positive relationships throughout their lives.

Based on brain development and economic research, birth-to-3 programs more than pay for themselves through high returns on investment, both public and private, as seen in short- and long-term results. First Born has shown several measured positive outcomes that building a healthy foundation for the entire life of a child including: consistent prenatal care, fewer emergency room visits in the first year, increased breastfeeding, regular preventive health care, higher child immunization rates, more reading, less screen time, engaged fathers, overall confident parenting and a connection to other community resources that support children and parents.

The LANL Foundation believes that early childhood education is the best long-term investment we can make in the future of New Mexico to move away from being 50th in the nation in child welfare and education.

Susan Herrera is chief executive officer of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that invests in learning and human potential in Northern New Mexico.

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