MIDDLEBURY — Dr. Jack Mayer, a pediatrician for more than 40 years, has seen the way stress in the first five years of a child’s life can lead to drastic learning and behavioral consequences later.
He spoke Thursday night at Middlebury College, which hosted a documentary sneak peek, lecture and community panel discussion on aspects of early childhood development. The night was sponsored by Let’s Grow Kids, a Vermont campaign that focuses on the importance of early learning and structure for children and how families can support those first years of a child’s life.
“Children need that interaction between their caregivers, the back and forth between them, in order to develop a strong foundation as they grow,” Mayer said.
He spoke of a study of mothers and babies that showed how children are biologically wired to seek attention from their parents. In the study, mothers interacted normally with their child and their child interacted back. Then, the mother was asked to stop interacting and simply ignore their child’s desire for attention. When this happened, the babies became stressed and cried when they could not make their mother react to them.
“The babies were not told to act that way. They were not told to reach out and make noises; it is a biological instinct to seek a human connection,” Mayer said. "When they did not get it, they were physically stressed.”
He said the stress comes in the form of a raised blood pressure, increased heart rate and other physical ailments. In the study, the babies were only temporarily stressed because the mothers eventually interacted with them again.
However, in cases of prolonged stress due to a lack of parental connection, babies continued to experience these physical and emotional effects. Mayer also spoke of how children in poverty are more stressed and therefore usually have difficulty later in life in areas such as academics and memory loss.
“But it’s not because of the poverty, it’s not because these kids are poor, not directly,” Mayer said. “It’s because with poverty comes stress.” And that stress from finances trickles down to the kids. Parents work longer hours to make ends meet, meaning they have less time spent on their children. “No one is to blame; parents are not to blame,” Mayer said. “It’s an issue with our social system.”
Mayer also talked about a drastic increase in autism over the years. “Forty years ago, maybe one child in 1,000 was diagnosed,” he said. “Now, it’s one child in less than 100.” Mayer said the environment in which children are raised has much to do with that outcome. “From the moment of conception to the first day of school, children are the most vulnerable to what is around them,” he said.
Audience members then got a short look at a PBS documentary in the works called “The Raising of America: Early Childhood and the Future of Our Nation.” The film takes an in-depth look into how a strong start for all children creates greater individual success and overall increased wellness and happiness in society. It touches on why only 40 percent of American children are prepared for school by the time they enter kindergarten. Most of the children who are not prepared are the ones who did not have a strong developmental foundation as infants, according to the film. They lacked relationships and experiences that cause children to learn and grow.
In 1970, the United States was the leading country in high school graduation rates. Now, it is in 21st place, the film says. One in five children struggle with anxiety, the documentary says, and that anxiety will follow them throughout life.
After the film, the discussion focused on why children and families are struggling. Emily Blistein, a mother and small business owner in Middlebury, was on the discussion panel. Before opening her shop and raising her son Julian, she said, she worked with women from different backgrounds in many different situations. She said that has given her a good perspective.
“People are forced to choose between staying home with their children and working, between waiting for great child care or settling for decent child care,” Blistein said. “That is a feeling that no one should have to face.” She said she brought Julian to her store every day for the first 10 months of his life. “People were always coming in and out, with their dogs and children, and Julian learned how to smile very early on,” Blistein said. “But at one point, I realized that maybe I wasn’t teaching him how to interact, maybe he wasn’t learning to his fullest capability.”
She decided to enroll him in a local day care center. And she is glad she did. “One day Julian came home from day care,” Blistein recalled. “He heard me shout because I had been upset about something. He came over to me looking very concerned and asked if I was all right. I realized that at school, they were teaching him to reach out to others. I’m not sure I would have been able to do
Jessica Doos, a registered nurse, said mothers are encouraged to breastfeed for the first year of their children’s lives because of the physical and emotional benefits. “Children are less likely to develop heart disease, obesity, leukemia and other illnesses if they are breastfed,” she said. “Mothers are less likely to develop breast and ovarian cancer.” Although the physical aspects of breastfeeding have been proven to be significant, Doos said, the emotional connection is just as powerful. “Breast feeding is a time for children and moms to bond.” However, with the pressure and financial need to head back to work, moms are getting less and less times with their infants.
“Our country is one of the few without realistic maternity and paternity leave,” Doos said. “Parents go back to work because they can’t afford to stay home, and that can damage the bond between parent and child. Having an increased amount of paid maternity leave would be a good step in the right direction toward changing all of this.”
By Bryanna Allen