The Nurture Science Program at Columbia University Medical Center was established as a response to an urgent need. One out of eight babies is born prematurely in the United States, and the percentage worldwide is growing. The Nurture Science Program is responding to this need through an integrated basic and clinical research program focused on explaining how and why nurture works and developing evidence-based family therapies that can effectively overcome emotional, behavioral, and developmental disorders.
Recent advances in medicine and technology have made it possible to support preterm births at earlier and earlier gestational ages. Premature birth often results in physical separation between mother and infant and can interrupt or bypass physiological, biochemical, and emotional processes that are critical to normal development.
To address this problem, Nurture Science Program Co-Director Martha G. Welch, MD, developed Family Nurture Intervention.The intervention is designed to establish emotional and physiological co-regulation between mother and infant by means of what Dr. Welch terms the Calming Cycle, or repeated and regular calming sessions between mother and infant. Both Family Nurture Intervention and the mother-infant Calming Cycle were established from the clinical observations of Dr. Welch.
The Nurture Science Program is currently testing the effectiveness of Family Nurture Intervention through randomized clinical trials in preterm, late preterm and term infants using numerous physiological behavioral assessments. Measures include brain activity, heart rate, heart rate variability, respiration rate, and cortisol levels.
Replicating the Family Nurture Intervention NICU Study
The Family Nurture Intervention NICU research carries with it the promise that mothers have the power to promote healthy future learning and relating while their baby is still in the hospital. Results suggest that mothers can mitigate and even repair some of deficits that can accompany premature birth.
Multi-site replication studies are currently being set up at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York City and Children’s Hospital at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.
These studies will be followed by effectiveness trials in the same hospitals to determine if this intervention can be effectively applied to all babies in NICUs within the next few years.
Other Family Nurture Intervention Studies
• A study to test the effects of Family Nurture Intervention (FNI) in a group setting of pre-school aged children and their mothers is being set up through the Norwalk Housing Authority in Connecticut. This study is a randomized control trial and we will recruit 80 mother-child test pairs. They will be randomized to either FNI or a play and nutrition group. Mother-child pairs will come in weekly for sessions for six months. Assessments will occur at three time points (3, 6, and 12 months post-enrollment). Behavioral and physiological data will be collected at enrollment and at the three following assessments.
• A Family Nurture Intervention brain imaging study is also being planned at the Women’s Hospital of British Columbia (WHBC) and University of British Columbia (UBC) This randomized control trial will examine whether FNI improves brain maturation, compared to standard care, using state-of-the-art MRI to measure changes in brain development from shortly after a premature birth to term equivalent age. The study is expected to begin in the fall of 2017.