Children’s earliest relationships set the stage for life

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Health & Fitness section on Monday, July 25, 2005)

A baby's first relationship is the most important.
A baby’s first relationship is the most important.

Browse through many of the parenting books on store shelves, and they’ll recommend singing and reading to your baby even before birth, talking to your newborn and making eye contact several times throughout the day. Local experts in child psychology say you’re not just helping your child’s brain make early connections that can enhance language skills later in life. You’re actually teaching your child how to establish and maintain their first relationship.

According to Dr. John Constantino, assistant professor of child psychiatry and a researcher at Washington University School of Medicine, it is this earliest relationship with a parent or caregiver that is the most powerful in a child’s life.

“It is that person who provides that baby with their first sense of what is a relationship with another human being all about,” explained Constantino. “And what happens as they grow up is … that relationship gets internalized in their mind and brain and carried forward, so that their whole understanding and their whole approach to relationships with other human beings is based in large measure on what happens during that first attachment relationship.”

This early bond is so important that Constantino and his colleagues have teamed up with experts in early childhood education at St. Louis Public Schools to work with parents and babies at enhancing attachments.

By offering group play sessions through the South Side Infant and Family Center, 2716 Pestalozzi Street, and one-on-one visits through Missouri’s Parents As Teachers program, they’re giving families in the city an opportunity to do something now that may have a profound impact later in their child’s life.

“The absence of a secure attachment relationship … essentially doubles the relative risk the child will have a significant mental health problem over the course of childhood,” said Constantino.

He also believes enhancing early attachment bonds can lower rates of violence later in life.

While this is a serious topic, the group and individual sessions center on play, according to Dr. Nahid Nader-Hashemi, executive director for early childhood education at St. Louis Public Schools.

She emphasizes the importance of “making sure that when you have your child in your lap, at least for a few seconds or a few moments of the day, you have that eye-to-eye contact. The touching, the closeness that you have, these are the very basic and simple things that we can tell parents.”

The goal is that children feel confident with their primary caregiver.

Constantino plans to follow the families for several years, in hopes of documenting the positive impact strong parent-child bonds have on families and communities.

For more on the program, contact the South Side Infant and Family Center at 314-865-0322, Ext. 4111, and ask for Gennie Gilmore.

Kay Quinn is an anchor and reporter for KDSK (Channel 5).

Copyright 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.