Ira Hillman -

Mar 16, 2022

Relationships Aren’t Just Good for Babies

There’s a growing understanding among leaders in health care, education, and social services that relationships play a key role in child development, particularly in the early years of a child’s life. Just last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new policy statement about toxic stress that emphasizes how an increased focus on healthy parent-child relationships in pediatric care could help more families alleviate the detrimental effects of adversity. Research shows that safe, stable, and nurturing relationships in infancy can protect babies from the effects of toxic stress and other trauma in their lives. This expanded body of research has recently catalyzed a new movement to advance early relational health (ERH), which highlights the benefits of foundational relationships for child well-being.

But the benefits of human connection extend well beyond early childhood, affecting people of all ages, as well as organizations, communities, and our broader society.

A Call to Connection is a new primer about the transformative power of relationships, explaining why connection matters, what gets in the way, and practices to cultivate connection in our own lives. It elevates the scientific research from hundreds of studies that demonstrate the importance of relationships to personal health and life satisfaction, as well as improved outcomes for schools, workplaces, and communities.

The primer notes, “When a child has needs and those needs are met with responsive caregiving, it fosters a cycle of mutuality, reciprocity, and emotional expression, which are foundational to healthy relationships.” Yet, we also know that emotional connection between two individuals, like a parent and child, is a state and not a trait. Life is full of disruption and distraction which causes disconnect. It is in those moments of disconnect that we must find ways to reconnect (through responsive, reciprocal communication along with mutuality in our vocal and facial expressions) in order to cultivate repair and healing. When parents and children orient to one another and reconnect, they both learn the important skill of repair which they can bring to challenging relationships at work, at home, and throughout their lives.

David Willis, MD is spearheading the efforts to build a movement to advance early relational health and a focus on relationships in the first years of life. He leads the ERH Coordinating Center at the Center for the Study of Social Policy. In a recent interview with me, he noted, “We’re facing a major public health crisis in human development with a growing number of children experiencing mental, behavioral, and social difficulties with the absence of a sufficient mental health system of care to address their needs, let alone a major public health prevention agenda.” Dr. Willis urges us to take action, adding, “When children are struggling behaviorally and emotionally as a result of stress surrounding them without the safe, stable, and nurturing protective relationships, they’re already off the mark developmentally, and need immediate attention, including strong relational and emotional supports for healing and recovery.”

“When children are struggling behaviorally and emotionally as a result of stress surrounding them without the safe, stable, and nurturing protective relationships, they’re already off the mark developmentally, and need immediate attention, including strong relational and emotional supports for healing and recovery.”

—David Willis, MD, CSSP

This all-too-common lack of emotionally connected foundational relationships early in life is one of a number of individual, interpersonal, and societal factors highlighted in A Call to Connection that create obstacles to human connection. Dr. Martha Welch at Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s Nurture Science Program describes the effect of interpersonal obstacles on our bodies. “When we’re emotionally disconnected from others, our bodies become dysregulated,” explains Dr. Welch. “And when our bodies are dysregulated, our brains simply can’t function optimally, which further interferes with relationships that would help with emotion regulation.”

Understanding the powerful value of a preventive and promotional approach, Einhorn Collaborative has embraced a focus on early relational health and emotional connection as the core of its Bonding strategy. We believe that supporting deeper emotional connection between children and caregivers early in a child’s life builds the foundation for a society where all people have the ability to bridge across differences to connect with each other, embrace our common humanity, and solve the pressing issues facing our country, together.

If you care about child development, family well-being, strengthening our communities, or maintaining a vibrant civil society, A Call to Connection offers extensive insights and relevant practices to help each of us put our commitment to connection into action.

Ira Hillman leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Building strategy. You can learn more about our work in Bonding here and more about Ira here. Sign up here to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Ira’s blog posts.

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