First3Years: Early Relational Health Between Mom and Baby

By Christy Serrano, Houston Regional Director, First3Years
May 14, 2020

The extent to which early relational health is supported and strengthened influences children’s overall development as well as mother’s health. First3Years, a state-wide nonprofit, seeks to promote early relational health during the first three years of life, which serves as the foundation for all learning and well-being, including school readiness, physical health and development, and social emotional regulation. This process of establishing a strong emotional connection between baby and mom also has direct health benefits to mom, which makes promoting healthy relationships between mom and baby an appealing two-generation approach to improving life-long and intergenerational outcomes starting at birth.

First3Years’ mission is to educate, advocate, and collaborate to advance the healthy development of infants, toddlers, and their families. We aim to address the needs of infants, toddlers and their families through collaborative efforts, professional development, and the implementation of research-based best practice within child serving systems, particularly within child welfare.

First3Years’ Safe Babies program seeks to lessen the long-term impact of neglect, increase the likelihood of reunification, and ensure policies that guide the movement of infants and toddlers within the child welfare system are developmentally informed. We do this by providing a model for collaborative communication, coordinated effort and training among judges, attorneys, case workers, and foster families that increase critical protective factors which result in better developmental outcomes for young children. Safe Babies specifically focuses on the co-parenting relationship between foster and biological parents in order to create better visits and increase caregiver knowledge about strategies that matter most for promoting healthy child development starting at birth.

We also have a campaign called Baby Day, which is the only statewide celebration of the first three years that is accessible to families online and celebrated at annual events held across nine cities in Texas, including right here in Houston and Baytown. At our annual Baby Day events, we bring together local organizations and individuals to provide baby-friendly activities that foster bonding and delight for all families. All Baby Day event activities, such as arts and crafts, baby yoga, and music classes, are free to families and are designed using free or low-budget items so that activities can be easily replicated at home and inspire families to enjoy strengthening their relationship with their infants and toddlers.

By promoting early relationships within families, First3Years helps form the foundation on which mothers and other caregivers can better understand their own and their child’s emotions, and begin building skills for dealing with the seemingly infinite amount of daily stressors that can affect families’ mental well-being. In terms of physical health, research on the impact of relational health between babies and mothers has shown better functioning of the mothers’ heart and central nervous system in emotionally connected pairs, which in turn supports the body’s ability to handle stress and fend off illness. We also know that positive parent-child interactions stimulate the brain’s dopamine-driven reward system which supports mothers’ emotional regulation, discouraging the need to seek comfort in artificial stimulants like drugs or alcohol. 

Promoting early relational health can happen anywhere, within family support programs as well as within community networks. We can all be advocates for mothers and share in the joy and delight of caregivers, celebrating the things that are going well even in tough times. Letting mothers know that they’re doing a great job and that you’re there for them has a bigger impact than one might think. Especially now in the time of social distancing, reaching out to families, predictably and consistently, with short calls or video chats can help caregivers feel supported and better able to strengthen the relationship they have with their young child. 

“Mothers are the lifeblood of our communities. As such, we must elevate both maternal health and relational health, from preconception to at least the first 1,000 days of their baby’s life, as a key driver for shaping resilient and thriving communities across Harris County.” ~Christy Serrano