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The Need

The Nurture Science Program at Columbia University Medical Center is a response to an urgent need. Millions of children suffer from emotional, behavioral, and developmental problems, and the number of affected families is increasing. Current available treatment strategies do not adequately meet the needs of these families, and the current healthcare response is not financially sustainable. Effective, evidence-based interventions that can be implemented at low cost are urgently needed.

Interventions at the earliest stages of life influence both the cognitive and socio-emotional development of children. Research shows that investment in early childhood interventions can generate far more impact than rehabilitative programs in later years, by which time emotional, behavioral, and developmental problems often have manifested themselves as larger issues. The Nurture Science Program will ensure the healthy development of all children by making nurture a priority for treatment and prevention, and ultimately, a way of life.

The Mission

The mission of the Nurture Science Program is to develop, rigorously test, and help implement therapies for preventing and overcoming emotional, behavioral, and developmental disorders in children.

The Approach

The Nurture Science Program employs a multi-strategy approach to help suffering families as soon as possible by:

  • developing nurture-based therapies;
  • proving their effectiveness and practicability;
  • providing a scientific explanation of how and why they work, and
  • helping to get them implemented in the field.

The term 'nurture' is used in this context to mean naturally occurring interactions between mothers and infants that underlie their emotional connection. These interactions include olfactory exchange, vocal soothing, comforting touch, eye contact, holding, and cuddling.

The Nurture Science Program builds upon Dr. Martha Welch’s 35 years of clinical experience treating families and children with a wide range of developmental and behavioral disorders. While treating autistic children, she first witnessed the transformation in behavior that occurs when mothers, fathers, and grandparents connected emotionally with the child. These effects, she reasoned, must be driven by powerful biological mechanisms. In 1997, Dr. Welch returned to her alma mater to pursue answers to her clinical insights. Since then, Dr. Welch has assembled a team of world-class scientists who are helping test her ideas at the laboratory bench and at the bedside to determine the scientific basis for how family nurture prevents and assists in overcoming emotional, behavioral, and developmental disorders in children.

The concepts at the center of the Nurture Science Program are supported by a long-standing and expanding body of scientific literature from both animal and clinical studies that provides evidence that nurturing interactions between mothers and infants can shape vulnerability and resilience to a broad range of mental, behavioral, and physical disorders.

The Research

The Nurture Science Program is developing and testing safe and practicable nurture-based interventions for infants and children aged 0 to 5 years.

Current research has tested a new strategy for the care of premature babies and their mothers in the hospital. A randomized clinical trial of Dr. Welch’s Family Nurture Intervention (FNI) was recently completed in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. FNI-NICU included mother-infant interactions aimed at strengthening their emotional connection.

The results of this first trial are extremely encouraging. They show that the mother-based intervention leads to the mitigation and repair of many deficits that are common in premature birth. Recently published results from the trial suggest that FNI was a powerful force in helping to prevent or overcome emotional, behavioral, and developmental problems in prematurely born infants. The results show that babies receiving FNI had robust increases in infant brain activity when the infants reached full term age. Increases up to 36% were observed in the frontal polar region in the intervention group, as compared to the control group.

The implications for FNI-NICU are exciting: The results of the study suggest that the negative effects of stress and trauma of preterm birth are not necessarily permanent. A relatively small “dose” of the mother-infant intervention led to beneficial effects that were sustained throughout the critical 18-month stage following discharge. Future studies will test whether implementing FNI in another institution can replicate the findings and whether FNI can be implemented by NICU staff and incorporated into standard care.

Meanwhile, preclinical research has begun to reveal the physiology, biochemistry, and mechanisms underlying FNI-NICU in animal models. The research team is testing the hypothesis that the beneficial effects of FNI are mediated by a phenomenon Dr. Welch first identified as a Calming Cycle. Experiments are being conducted to find out if the Calming Cycle can be replicated and examined in other mammalian species.

It is hoped that the breakthrough research of the Nurture Science Program will lead to a shift away from the current healthcare priorities on disease-centered research and drug-oriented of treatment to nurture-based research and family-based intervention that can be implemented in the home.

Your Partnership Makes A Difference

Nurture Science Program is working hard to unlock the secrets of nurture and harness its reparative powers. As a field of scientific inquiry, nurture has been under-appreciated, under-explored, and under-supported. The Nurture Science Program relies upon the financial resources and partnerships of many generous private individuals and organizations.

This research carries with it the promise that caregivers have the power to promote healthy development, learning, and relating from the earliest stages of childhood. You can change the lives of generations of young children by supporting the Nurture Science Program. With your help we can make lives better.

To learn more about how you or your organization can help in this important effort, contact us.