There’s one essential factor in babies’ health that even the most devoted parents may miss

Love is all you need.
Love is all you need.
Image: Reuters / Fabrizio Bensch
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Parents preparing to have a child have a million decisions to make, from how to give birth, to selecting childcare, healthcare, and schooling options. But a new report highlights how an essential ingredient to babies’ health starts with parents themselves—specifically, their mental health.

The State of Babies Yearbook is published by Zero To Three, a nonprofit aimed at advancing the science and policy surrounding children’s first three years of life. It assesses US states based on more than 15 factors related to children’s health, their families, and the early learning opportunities afforded them. This year’s report finds that high-performing states like Vermont, Connecticut, and Minnesota, which did as well or better than the national average in these categories, all have in common strong state-level policies aimed at providing quality care and education to the most vulnerable kids.

But the report also provides valuable insight into how important it is for parents to feel healthy and well while raising their children. During the window between birth and five years old, babies’ bodies and brains develop at incredible speed. The interaction between their genes and their early experiences builds the foundation for healthy cognitive and emotional development later in life. Stable relationships with loving and supportive caregivers can strengthen and build connections in babies’ brains, helping to serve as “buffers” that protect kids from harmful experiences.

Parents suffering from mental illness may not be as able as other parents to provide their babies with the kind of reactive and responsive interactions they need to grow. According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child (CDC), “When children grow up in an environment of mental illness, the development of their brains may be seriously weakened, with implications for their ability to learn as well as for their own later physical and mental health.”

Poor mental health is especially prevalent amongst US moms. According to the CDC (pdf), “an estimated 10 to 20% of mothers will be depressed at some time during their lives.” Maternal depression has been shown to disrupt the relationship between mother and child, has been linked to lower IQ and higher risk of antisocial behavior for children, and has been shown to disproportionately affect (pdf) low-income families.

In its 2019 report, Zero To Three uses the percentage of mothers who report “less than optimal” mental health as one of the benchmarks by which to judge whether a given state fosters “good health.” It finds that, on this metric at least, progress is being made: Medicaid programs in 36 states now cover screening for maternal depression, while 41 states offer social-emotional screening for young children. “It’s critical that we call out those numbers and that we show states and the federal government how important it is to think about the mental health and well-being of parents,” says Myra Jones-Taylor, Zero To Three’s chief policy officer, “and how that affects the developmental outcomes of their babies, and then really society overall.”

Even if policies are improving, much work remains to be done to change the cultural approach to mental well-being. Many parents today are juggling dual-career households and caring for a newborn with fewer support systems in place to help them. Nadine Burke-Harris, California’s surgeon general, says parents often underestimate how important their own emotional health is for their children. “We biologically have the capacity to calm our children’s stress response,” she previously told Quartz. “But in order to do that, we have to … have our own stress response in healthy working order, and so that means that sometimes we have to do work on ourselves.” That’s why she argues that “self-care isn’t selfish”: “As parents, we want to put our kids first all the time. But we have to be well.”

Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.