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Helping caregivers nurture early relationships

Curious infant When a baby is born, adults rally around to help the infant reach those important developmental milestones: rolling over, sitting up, holding a toy, crawling, standing, walking, talking. Experts know these physical achievements are essential to an infant’s progress.

Experts and educators also realize how important it is that parents and caregivers help nurture and promote an infant’s social and emotional growth. Promoting First Relationships (PFR) is a Northwest-based program designed to teach professionals and other childcare providers ways to do just that.

Jean Kelly, Ph.D., a University of Washington nursing professor and PFR director, planted the seed for PFR decades ago. A researcher in the field of attachment parenting, Kelly developed a method of observing and supporting caregiver-child relationships. Her work evolved into the first incarnation of Promoting First Relationships.

By 2000, PFR, based at the University of Washington, had partnered with the Washington State Department of Health and Healthy Child Care, and trained nurse consultants and caregivers throughout the state. Today, PFR helps childcare providers to understand children’s emotional needs, learn to be more empathetic and develop new strategies to deal with behavioral issues.

A new tool for parents
On the heels of this success, PFR is releasing a book this October for parents and caregivers of children ages newborn to 3 years old. While past publications were geared towards professionals, Promoting First Relationships: How to Support Your Young Child’s Social and Emotional Development will focus on ways parents can meet children’s social and emotional needs.

“This is the first time PFR is attempting to reach into the parent audience, because we think these ideas are so important to them,” says Kelly.

The book explains how creating an atmosphere of trust and security between parents and children helps kids feel safe, says Kelly. “The child will get an internal feeling that says, ‘I can go into the world and feel like the world is good and that people are going to like me.’”

Kelly’s work reflects the theories of psychotherapist Erik Erikson, known for his studies of the human psyche, dubbed the Eight Stages of Man. Erikson felt the first 18 months of a child’s life is a critical time to develop basic trust. The quality of the relationship between a newborn and his primary caregivers, he found, has a lifelong impact on that child’s ability to navigate social situations and relationships.

More than 40 years later, PFR continues to support Erikson’s notion of the importance of the caregiver to a child’s emotional well-being. Even newborns know if their needs are being met, says Kelly. “That’s the critical piece. The infant is thinking, ‘Will someone keep me safe and secure? Am I protected? Do I get the care I need?’”

Consistency in the quality of care also counts, he says. While relatives or family friends can be caregivers, high-quality childcare in commercial settings also works well. “Children can adapt to turnover in their care-giving situations,” says Kelly. “But it’s important to look for the ability of the caregiver to establish an emotional connection with the child.”

The concepts developed in PFR should be carried on throughout a child’s life. “It’s a continuing process,” says Kelly.

Andrea Leigh Ptak is a freelance writer and graphic designer who lives with her husband and daughter in South Seattle.

Online resources

Promoting First Relationships
Dedicated to promoting children’s social-emotional development through responsive and nurturing caregiver-child relationships

NCAST programs
Promoting nurturing environments for young children

The developmental stages of Erik Erikson

Zero to Three — National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families
Social-emotional development: birth to 12 months old 
main.zerotothree.org, search for “social-emotional development: birth to 12 months”

National Network for Child Care
Infant development

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