Improving the health of children and adolescents | NICHD
NICHD is dedicated to helping all children thrive, from birth through school and beyond.
A NICHD-led study explored the links between maternal depression during pregnancy and child development. Researchers have found that episodes of maternal stress or depression during pregnancy are associated with chemical changes in placental genes. The modifications involve DNA methylation – the attachment of compounds known as methyl groups to DNA – which can alter the activity of a gene. Some of the methylation changes associated with maternal depression occurred near genes involved in brain development. The researchers called for long-term studies to determine whether epigenetic changes in the placenta can affect children’s mental health outcomes.
NICHD research also helps ensure that infants born preterm, before 34 weeks gestation, get the best start in life. A NICHD-supported study reported that the standard course of antibiotics given to preterm infants at birth does not significantly alter the growth of microbiotic organisms in their gut during the first two weeks of life. Researchers had hypothesized that removing antibiotics would allow infants’ microbiome to develop, leading to better clinical outcomes. However, the study team found no difference between infants who received standard antibiotic treatment and those who did not. Both groups had similar microbiome compositions and similar clinical outcomes. The results suggest that current standard practice does not harm the infant’s developing microbiome.
Another research team looked at the screen viewing time of children born extremely premature (before 28 weeks of pregnancy). They found that more than two hours of screen time per day at ages 6 and 7 was associated with problems with attention, impulsivity, problem solving and IQ deficits. Similarly, infants born extremely premature who had a television or computer in their bedroom were also more likely to have problems with impulse control and attention. The results suggest that prolonged screen time may be associated with cognitive deficits and behavioral problems common to children born extremely premature.
Another NICHD-supported study reported that a home visiting program can reduce the incidence of child maltreatment. Researchers have found that a program of brief home visits by nurses soon after birth – called Family Connects – can be beneficial during infancy, reducing rates of child maltreatment and the need for emergency medical care. . Compared to families who received typical neonatal services, families in the Family Connects home visiting program in Durham County, North Carolina, made an average of 33% fewer emergency room visits and received 39% fewer child abuse investigations by the time children were 5 years old. . The results suggest that similar programs could benefit children across the country.
In another NICHD-funded study, low-income mothers in Pittsburgh and New York who received coaching during regular doctor visits before their child was 6 months old were more likely to report talking, playing and reading aloud with their children than those who did not. . Their recorded interactions were also found to be of higher quality. As part of the Smart Beginnings program, coaches videotaped parent-child interactions with a book or toy at the doctor’s office and gave parents feedback to help foster cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional growth of their children. Scheduled during baby checkups, this program is an effective and cost-effective approach to reducing disparities in school readiness, according to the study authors.
NICHD also supports research to promote adolescent health and development. One study evaluated a dating violence prevention program called Fourth R. In a sample of Texas colleges, seventh-graders who took health classes with Fourth R content on healthy relationships, substance use and bullying prevention, and conflict resolution were less likely to report having been physically violent towards a dating partner one year later compared to students in schools with a program standard health. The study was the first evaluation of the Fourth R curriculum for this age group. Further research will help determine the potential long-term effects of the program as students transition to secondary school.
Overall, NICHD research helps protect the physical health and well-being of society’s youngest members.