Research Findings Point the Way Forward

The Nurture Science Program develops, tests, and promote tools and technique to identify and support emotional connection, to help families address and prevent emotional, behavioral, and developmental difficulties.

The Nurture Science Program team has kicked off the new year with exciting work, as we build on important research findings to help families everywhere address and prevent emotional, behavioral, and developmental difficulties.

This year, the Nurture Science Program’s work will focus on three key areas:

The Welch Emotional Connection Screen (WECS)

The first steps to support emotional connection are understanding this new construct and being able to recognize it. The WECS tool, and trainings being developed, are designed to accomplish that goal. The WECS has been validated with NICU populations at four months, and validation studies for additional age groups are underway.

A group of practitioners from across the country is collaborating with the Nurture Science Program team to develop and pilot training so the WECS can be used reliably in a number of settings. These may include pediatric primary care, home visiting programs, and  community organizations that support children and families. When care providers understand and identify emotional connection that helps make early intervention possible.

Supporting Emotional Connection in the NICU

The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) offers a critical opportunity to help families establish emotional connection in a high-stress situation that requires babies be separated from their parents. In 2017, about one in 10 babies in the U.S. was born prematurely, and many of those babies spent time in the NICU. Children born prematurely are at increased risk for many health and developmental challenges, including behavioral problems, learning difficulties, communication issues, and autism spectrum disorders.

The first randomized control trial of Family Nurture Intervention (FNI) in the NICU showed dramatic benefits for both mothers and infants. Premature infants who received FNI in the NICU showed improved brain activity at term age, compared to premature infants who did not receive FNI in the NICU. At 18 months, these children had improved cognition and language, fewer attention problems, and reduced risk for autism. Mothers who received FNI in the NICU showed improved caregiving when their babies were in the NICU, and lower levels of depression and anxiety when their babies were four months old, compared to mothers who did not receive FNI in the NICU.

Replication studies are ongoing at Columbia University/New York-Presbyterian’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York City, and at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, Texas. An effectiveness trial is underway at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, New Jersey. This study will provide insights into what training and support is needed to integrate FNI into standard care at NICUs across the country.

Developing Emotional Connection Tools for Children and Their Parents

Emotional, behavioral, and developmental challenges are usually identified between the ages of two and five years. If these challenges are addressed early and effectively, the child can often return to a healthy developmental path. Through decades of clinical practice, Martha G. Welch, MD, Director of the Nurture Science Program, found that establishing and maintaining emotional connection between parent and child is key to helping families overcome these challenges.

Based on Dr. Welch’s insights, and the groundbreaking research the Nurture Science Program has conducted with families in the NICU, clinical care providers and researchers are collaborating to develop and test tools that can be used by clinicians, parent-facing professionals, and families at home to help young children and their parents establish and maintain emotional connection. The goal is to make proven, easy-to-implement tools available in a variety of settings to help all families with children ages five years and under establish and maintain emotional connection.

This team of collaborators has developed and is piloting prototype interventions, including a book for children and parents to read together. Also included is a practitioner tip sheet to help them support families as they establish emotional connection. Randomized control trials are underway to evaluate the feasibility and efficacy of using group-based FNI to help preschool families struggling with emotional and behavioral challenges.