Home Visiting Helps Combat Effects of Toxic Stress in Young Children

Guest blog by Diana Rauner, President, Ounce of Prevention Fund & Gaylord Gieseke, Vice President, Voices for Illinois Children 

The number of children at risk for the short and long-term effects of toxic childhood stress is growing dramatically. This was the dismal news highlighted in a policy statement released last month by the American Academy of Pediatrics and in a recent op-ed from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Both cite new research that demonstrates that the cumulative effects of growing up in environments replete with violence, parental depression, chaos and other uncertainties can literally alter the healthy, normal development of a young child’s brain. These stressors can impede a child’s capacity to “power down” from the fight or flight reflex, which reduces his ability to manage his temper and emotions or show empathy to others. It can also lead to later drug and alcohol use, obesity, heart disease and even early death.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Voluntary home visiting programs can help young parents learn to nurture and emotionally support their babies during the first 36 months of life and mitigate those environmental risks. Research also shows these programs reduce child abuse and neglect, improve health and education outcomes and reduce reports of parental depression – all key indicators for chronic childhood stress.

The Ounce of Prevention Fund and Voices for Illinois Children have long championed such services for Illinois children. As leaders of the Illinois Early Learning Council’s Home Visiting Taskforce, and in partnership with the McCormick Foundation, we have been at the forefront of efforts to use state and new federal investments to improve and extend the impact of home visiting programs in Illinois.

Today, more than 20,000 children and families in Illinois receive home visiting services. The need, however, is far greater. Estimates are that each year 68,000 young, at-risk children, along with their families, do not have access to services. In the last year the Task Force has helped secure $10 million in funding to enhance Illinois’s home visiting infrastructure and increase access to services.

Home visiting programs work, and are critically needed in Illinois and across the country. We must invest in proven solutions that will render social ills obsolete and support young children in realizing their full potential to grow up happy, healthy and become active contributors to our economy.


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