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Study shows impact of home visits for new moms, babies last long

CHLA therapist, Lorena Samora, visits the home of Shantoya Byrd and Anmarie Paz each week to help the family deal with the severe separation anxiety the baby was experiencing. This is one of her last visits as both mother and child have made significant progress and the child is much calmer and has learned self-soothing techniques.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC
In this file photo, therapist, Lorena Samora, visits the home of Shantoya Byrd and Anmarie Paz each week to help the family deal with the severe separation anxiety the baby was experiencing.

There's already a lot of evidence to show that home visitation programs have a positive impact on moms and babies. Now, Nobel laureate James Heckman and his team of economists have added more ammunition to the evidence-based practice. 

The analysis of the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), a national program that organizes nurse visits to the homes of families with young children, found that it improved child health, family environments, child cognition, socio-emotional development and educational achievement.

"Of course, high-quality preschool matters a lot, but this study expands and helps to build upon other interventions that are also important that can occur before the child goes to preschool, even before birth," said report co-author Maria Rosales, an assistant professor in education at the University of California - Irvine.

NFP programs currently provide services for more than 33,000 families in 43 states in the U.S. Specially trained nurses visit low-income, first-time mothers during pregnancy providing medical, parenting and family education. These visits continue through the baby’s second birthday. It's been running in L.A. County since 1996 and serves more than 1,000 families.

The paper analyzed a trial of the program conducted in Memphis, Tennessee in 1990, which tracked outcomes of hundreds of children who participated in the program until they were 12. Data from the Memphis trial was collected when children were 6 months, 1, 2, 6 and 12 years old.

This was the first study to slice outcomes by gender. Compared with a control group, there were improved birth weights for boys, improved socio-emotional skills for six-year-old girls, and improved cognitive skills and girls and boys at age six. 

"And then these effects at age six generated a cascade of positive effects later on at age 12 on educational achievement," said Rosales.

By age 12, boys who'd been part of NFP outperformed their peers in the control group in math and reading achievement. 

Researchers said the goal of the study was to give policymakers a better sense of the impact of prenatal care and early life programs that supplement the family. This comes at a time when many advocates are nervous about the future of a major funding stream for home visitation program. The Maternal, Infant, Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program, a federal program that supports NFP and many similar programs will expires in September unless Congress reauthorizes funding.

Sarah McGee, national director of advocacy for the NFP, said this research comes at a key moment.

"It brings the attention to the critical need to continue federal funding of home visiting and how it cane change outcomes for vulnerable children born into poverty," she said.

"It really validates that Nurse Family Partnership and other evidence-based home visiting programs are a game-changer for kids born into poverty."

L.A. County offers several models of home visitation programs – which also rely on MIECHV funding – and there's growing support from the Board of Supervisors to expand investments.

MIECHV programs serve a tiny fraction –  around 3 percent – of eligible families in the country.

This post has been updated to correct the number of families the Nurse-Family Partnership serves nationwide. KPCC apologizes for the error.