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Why pre-natal care and family-focussed policies are good for everyone

A version of this commentary appeared in the Huffington Post, Windsor Star and the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal

drawing togetherOur social safety net has a broken thread, and the ones who slip through the resulting hole are often the smallest among us: our children.

On every metric, children from disadvantaged homes face greater challenges to success than their more privileged peers. As a result, they do worse in school, get poorer paying jobs and suffer disproportionately from violence, addiction and mental health issues.

Policy-makers have tried to remedy this problem in dozens of ways — through our primary schools and our focus on early childhood education, to name a few. But are these programs enough? Research shows us that the period in children’s lives most critical to their success occurs long before school, or even daycare. Indeed, it occurs before the child is even born.

Environmental influences begin to shape children from the moment of conception. As the fertilized egg divides, creating zygote, embryo, and fetus, the infant-to-be derives far more from her mother than simple nutrition. She also receives a veritable cocktail of hormones and other chemicals that can have a profound, lifelong impact on her mental and physical growth.

The most infamous examples of this would be fetal alcohol syndrome and the low birth weights associated with smoking while pregnant. But poor nutrition, prescription medicine, environmental pollutants and even stress can have just as serious an effect.

The connection between prenatal stress and postnatal disease has been carefully studied in rats and rhesus monkeys, and linked to everything from hormone imbalances to schizophrenia to heart disease. Humans are harder to study for ethical reasons, but sometimes history conducts a study for you.

Such an event occurred in the Netherlands during the winter of 1944, when a Nazi food embargo caused one of the most devastating famines in Europe’s recent history. Mothers who were pregnant during the height of the famine gave birth to children with a substantially greater risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and schizophrenia. The emotional and physical stress of the famine had a tangible impact not just on their children, but their children’s children, creating a cycle of disease that continues to this day.

Generational cycles of disease happen in Canada, too. The environment continues to exert a tremendous influence through infancy and early childhood, and the many stresses of life in a financially struggling family trickle down to them. The result: underprivileged kids suffering disproportionately from obesity, depression and ADHD, and growing into adults with greater risks of alcoholism, behavioural disorders and even certain cancers.

The solution is not just more support for children, but more support for families.

Reduce the stress in their lives and we put their children on an even footing. From there, a network of postnatal resources could provide struggling mothers with the support they need to support their children. Even simple gestures, such as providing new mothers with books to read to their children, are showing promise for improving literacy.

Canadians value fairness. We are a society made up mostly of immigrants, individuals from every corner of the globe who came here to make a better life for themselves. A nation of fresh starts, where success favours brains over birthrights. Or at least we strive to be.

Our country isn’t perfect — no country is — but equality is certainly part of our national bedrock, the foundation on which many of our social programs, from universal health care to employment insurance, rest.

But inequality goes deeper than kindergarten classes. To help children, we need to help parents, beginning before birth. If we don’t, everyone suffers. A country that ignores its youth is a country with fewer taxpayers, a greater burden on social programs, and more crime.

A parent-first approach isn’t just the right choice; it’s the smart choice.

Nicole Letourneau is an expert avisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and a professor in the Faculties of Nursing and Medicine.  She also holds the Norlien/Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health at the University of Calgary. Justin Joschko is a freelance writer currently residing in Ottawa. Their co-authored book, Scientific Parenting, is due for release in August.

June 2013

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.