Education and support programs for parents delivered during pregnancy and the first postpartum year can improve both parenting and babies’ wellbeing and development, a new NHMRC evidence review suggests.
The Report on the Evidence: Promoting social and emotional development and wellbeing of infants in pregnancy and the first year of life (Report on the Evidence) summarises the findings of an NHMRC evaluation of of 51 systematic literature reviews. It also analyses the types of interventions aimed at promoting infants’ and children’s social and emotional wellbeing.
The report is aimed at governments and other policy makers, researchers and service providers who work with parents of infants.
It states that there were encouraging results suggesting some programs that might help improve babies’ capacity for healthy emotional lives and relationships, although there was not sufficient evidence of this in babies less than one year old.
Several of the programs had other benefits for babies, or later as children or adolescents.
Which programs might work to improve Australian babies’ wellbeing?
The report found that education and support programs for parents, provided during pregnancy or in the baby’s first year by trained professionals, could:
- improve babies’ ability to think and how to understand the world around them
- improve the way babies relate to people and show emotions
- improve babies’ sleep
- improve parents’ knowledge about babies’ behaviour
- improve parenting, and parents’ care of their children’s general health
- help a couple adjust to becoming parents
- reduce maltreatment of children.
Programs designed to foster a healthy bond between baby and parent or caregiver were likely to increase mothers’ sensitivity and attachment to their babies.
Programs based on the Neonatal Behavioural Assessment Scale are completed by a trained professional either while explaining what they are doing to the baby’s parents, or showing the parents how to do the test within a few weeks of birth. Such programs might help improve parents’ sensitivity and responsiveness to their babies, the report found.
For parents and babies who need more support?
Home visiting programs that are mainly for parents who need extra support because they are young, single or experiencing financial hardship or social isolation are likely to improve parenting, improve babies’ chance of receiving all the recommended immunisations, improve babies’ intelligence and ability to think and get to know the world around them, and improve sleeping, the report found. Home visiting was also likely to help prevent abuse or neglect of children and to reduce child injuries and hospital admissions.
Programs designed for parents of infants born preterm or with low birthweight were likely to improve babies’ ability to think and get to know the world around them, and to improve parenting. For example, kangaroo care which involves the baby being carried or held in close skin-to-skin contact by a parent, supervised by trained health professionals could improve babies’ survival and reduce their risk of serious infection, the report found.
The report states that further research is needed to fill gaps in the evidence, as very few studies assessing programs for babies and new parents actually measured the signs of improved social and emotional wellbeing of infants, partly because this was quite challenging to do.
“It will be important to measure these in future studies, because we now know that they are an important part of a child’s development that can affect the child throughout her or his whole life,” they wrote.