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Editor's Note: Watch the complete documentary at yahoo.com/babybrain.
Researchers are trying to better understand the biology of stress and its impact on child health. Now, data suggests those connections may form as early as the womb, with studies indicating frequent and prolonged adversity for pregnant women can affect the development of their babies. Stephanie Sy reports on a program aimed at easing the stress and struggles of mothers and their unborn children.
Researchers are trying to better understand the biology of stress and the many ways toxic stress can affect a child's health.
Stephanie Sy has a report produced by Yahoo News about how frequent or prolonged adversity for a mother could affect the development of the baby in the womb.
When I met Lisa Thompson, like me, she was five months pregnant.
So, you're due?
Which is the same exact day that I'm due. Congratulations.
Lisa is 18 years old, and, six months earlier, had been homeless.
How have you been doing as far as the stress of pregnancy?
I have had a lot of depression a lot. So, me and the dad kind of — he's happy about it. He says he is going to be there. I'm worried that he is not going to be there.
Did you think you would be doing it on your own?
No. I mean, I know my mom did it on her own when she was pregnant with me. But it's kind of scary, because I don't want my baby to have a life like that.
Because my dad wasn't there when I was born. And, basically, that's all I know.
Researchers now believe poverty can begin in the womb, if a mother is exposed to toxic stress.
Dr. Jack Shonkoff:
When we are stressed, our heart rate goes up, our blood pressure goes up. Stress hormones get released in our bloodstream. Toxic stress is when those systems are activated most of the time.
Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a renowned expert on early childhood development, heads the center on the developing child at Harvard University.
Toxic stress is not about the cause of the stress. It's the biological response to the stress. And an environment that is fraught with stresses affects gene expression. It affects how some genes turn on or turn off.
From the moment of conception until the moment you die.
In West Virginia, I have met several moms in an effort to understand how the stresses of poverty might affect them, their children and even their unborn babies.
So, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.
At a food pantry held monthly at Hope United Methodist Church, I meet Kristin. She asked that we not use her last name, but shares a life story seemingly fraught with stress.
This is my daughter Skyler (ph), one of three. I have a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old. I got pregnant at 16. My mother and father were both addicts and alcoholics. And I had a rough childhood.
Hello? I'm at a church thing.
So, clearly, you're still struggling financially.
Trying to get away from an abusive guy.
If you don't believe me, you can talk with — am I at the church right now?
Yes, she is.
Can you just tell me about the stresses you were going through? Obviously, you were going through…
I was on Subutex when I was pregnant with her.
What is that? That's for…
To get off opiates.
This is her dad calling. So, I'm really sorry, but I have got to go pick him up from work.
But she had had withdrawals. And I went through postpartum depression. I was alone. I didn't have any support. My mom lives in Tennessee. I don't have a lot of family, and my mom wasn't the greatest mom. So I strive to be what she wasn't.
We have studied resilience in the face of poverty.
One of the most important predictors of good outcomes in the face of adversity is the presence of at least one reliable, responsive, protective relationship with an important person.
It can be a — and very often is a parent, can be another family member, a grandparent.
Shonkoff says this new biological understanding suggests breaking the poverty cycle begins with pregnant moms and the right kind of support.
We're already increasing the likelihood that that next generation will do better.
The science may be new, but the national organization Nurse-Family Partnership has been putting it to practice for nearly four decades.
OK, we are headed out for our first visit.
Nurses like Lori Rogers in Montgomery, Alabama, pay home visits to first-time mothers, providing medical checkups and helping them set goals.
One of the things about Nurse-Family Partnership is to make sure that, hey, we're asking, what do you want to do with your life? What's important to you?
Hey, good morning.
We're going to sit over here?
Yes ma'am. OK.
Look at this butterfly.
Typically, our visit consists of asking how they have been since we have been last here, whether they have been healthy, or — I try to weigh Aubrey. I might get some measurements on her. We typically talk about Latrita, how's her job going.
OK, well this is a daily job list. I thought I'd give you this and just see. There might be something there.
Look at the bunny.
The new science says doing the type of thinking involved in goal-setting actually changes the brain, increasing executive function, which is a key to societal success.
When the work is done well, it helps to change brain wiring, so that the individuals can basically become the navigators of their own lives.
Beth Babcock is head of a program based in Boston called EMPath, which uses the latest neuroscience to coach families toward better outcomes.
We're seeing families that, when we work with them for three years or more, are almost doubling their incomes.
The real process of helping people move out of poverty is the process of standing beside and helping them see themselves and their future in a different way.
In a sense, it comes down to love. Providing love may counter the toxic effects of poverty-related stress, a surprisingly low-tech way to address what advanced brain science has revealed.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.
And to watch the complete documentary, go to Yahoo.com/babybrain.
Watch the Full Episode
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
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