COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, NURTURE SCIENCE PROGRAM
“Toxic stress” as a concept has gained a firm foothold in our health discourse and even crossed over into the mainstream. That’s because we can so clearly see the physiological and behavioral effects it is having on our children.
But what do we do about it? And how do we shift our attention from merely identifying toxic stress as a problem to buffering it? How do we build healthy, resilient children and families?
The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement last year that says the answer lies in fostering relational health between children and adults in pediatric primary care practice.
But how we foster relational health remains up for interpretation. As the policy statement reports, many pediatric and early childhood professionals have long recognized the vital importance of the parent-child relationship, and yet “the elemental nature of relational health is not reflected in much of our current training, research, practice, and advocacy.”
From our perspective here at the Nurture Science Program, there are three central reasons relational health has not become an integral component of pediatric care.
1. Relational Health is still largely considered psychological.
2. Most existing relational health screens look separately at parent or child, take time, and are difficult to code.
3. Within existing frameworks, such as attachment theory, each individual develops a fixed attachment style, which means it does not change. Early intervention then becomes the only hope for the developing child.
Through our lens and work on autonomic emotional connection, we hope to provide a practical, scalable solution.
1. Relational health is biological, physiological, and interpersonal.
Over decades of research we have uncovered that there is something happening between mother and infant when they get emotionally connected—not just in the brain, but on a deep body-to-body level, which is where we can observe and measure it. That is why we call it autonomic emotional connection.
The autonomic nervous system is the nervous system that modulates our stress response; it makes our hearts beat and lungs breathe without our having to think about it; these processes regulate our emotional behavior. When mom and baby are emotionally connected on the autonomic level, they are actually regulating each other’s heart rates and hormones and positively affecting each other’s stress responses. In other words, when a mom and baby are cuddling, talking and cooing warmly with each other, making eye contact, listening and responding to each other, they are influencing the very physiological functions that underlie their health.
Photo Credit: Nurture Science
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