By Anne Giordano, Early Childhood Consultant, Litchfield, CT.

The science is clear that our brains grow the fastest between birth and 3 years old.  When babies don’t get what their developing brains need during this critical time, there can be negative and long-lasting developmental, educational, health and mental health consequences.

We also know that the person most likely to enter a federally-funded homeless shelter in the United States is under the age of 1, followed by ages 1 to 5.

What is it like to be tiny, and homeless? What might it be like to be pregnant and homeless? And what are the short- and long-term consequences?

“Where will I put the crib?” “Where will I rock her to sleep?” These early actions and visualizations lay the foundation for a positive attachment relationship between a mother and her baby, preparing a mother to be emotionally available and to provide the responsive, nurturing and safe environment required for her newborn to flourish. But how does this happen if the mom doesn’t know where she will sleep, or where her own belongings will be? Or if she’s completely isolated from family and friends?

Infants, in turn, come into the world prewired to connect with and attach to their primary caregivers. Their main “job” is to develop a sense of security and trust in their world. A nurturing, caring relationship provides the secure base from which a baby discovers answers to important questions; these answers lead to the formation of their internal view of themselves and their place in the world.  “Can I trust others?” “Do I have an effective voice?” “Am I lovable?” “Is my world a safe and trusting place?” A secure attachment predicts positive child outcomes. However, children with poor attachment relationships are disproportionately at risk for social, emotional, developmental and health concerns from early childhood through adulthood.

Homelessness is devastating for expectant mothers, parents, and their infants, with the attachment relationship likely derailed from the get-go.  Secure attachment is extremely difficult with mothers who are chronically stressed and emotionally unavailable and infants who are living with unpredictability, frequent transitions, unmet basic needs, and quite often, separation from primary caregivers.

What can we, as providers, do to help? We cannot fix it all; but we can offer the consistency, respect and nurturing that likely are missing from their lives. We can accept without judgment, we can meet families where they are… and we can come back, even when visits are difficult or there are no-shows. We can trust that they may be doing the very best they can at this moment.

Here’s just one example: Sabrina, an expectant mom with two children ages 2 and 4, called me. Fleeing an abusive situation, she and the children were tenuously doubled-up with old friends; meeting in that home was not viable. So we met at Dunkin Donuts; it was a place where she felt safe. Over a cup of coffee, we completed developmental screenings with her children; connected her to a community health clinic and the local domestic violence shelter; and made referrals to both early intervention services and Head Start.  Sometimes… it can be just that simple!

Never underestimate the tremendous impact that you may have on a family; your presence alone and your ability to show that you have “held that child and family in mind” has likely done much to buoy them in positive ways that may not be immediately visible to you. Finally, remember the value of self-care; you cannot give to others if your own vessel is empty.

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