This year, as we gather to celebrate Mother’s Day, we are reminded of those precious early days and weeks when motherhood is new and when even the most supported moms can feel overwhelmed. This is an especially daunting time for mothers who don’t have family members around to help out, who are struggling financially, and who don’t have easy access to healthcare. The good news is that Ohio has a solid base upon which to build an effort to support these moms – a robust network of voluntary home visiting programs already operating throughout both rural and urban parts of our state.
Research shows that home visits by a nurse, social worker, early childhood educator or other trained professional during pregnancy and in the first years of life improve maternal and child health, prevent child abuse and neglect, increase positive parenting and enhance child development and school readiness. Ohio receives federal funds through the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program to support communities that implement and expand evidence-based home visiting services; services designed to meet families where they are-- literally and figuratively. One Ohio mother offered an example recently that paints the clearest possible picture. “She didn’t judge, no matter what,” the mom said of her home visitor. “If she mentioned something, but I said that I was going to do something else instead, she would say, ‘That’s fine, you’re the mom. You do what you feel is right.’ But she always gave me helpful things like [information on] co-sleeping. I do not co-sleep, but I was going to. She gave me information on co-sleeping and I realized it wasn’t safe and now [my daughter] sleeps on her own.”
Invaluable moments like this stem from the underlying premise of home visiting that parents are their children’s most important teachers, and in some respects, their most important health care providers. The home visiting model recognizes that these roles are often inseparable; that education and health are – particularly in the early years – intimately connected. This begins in pregnancy, when a mother’s choices, such as the decision to quit smoking, can lead to or prevent poor outcomes such as low birth weight and pre-term birth, which have been connected to a child’s below average academic performance later in life.
In the toddler years, home visitors educate parents on the importance of and need for continued well-child visits and help them access services such as regular developmental screenings. That means, for example, a toddler who is having trouble seeing gets glasses long before vision struggles result in reading delays and possible behavior issues at school. From infancy through preschool, home visitors help moms develop healthy, positive ways to interact with their growing child; giving them tools that range from positive discipline techniques to games that help youngsters develop early math or language skills.
Home visiting meets families where they are by delivering support to mothers on their terms and in their own homes. Similarly, the federal funding structure of MIECHV gives states the flexibility they need to determine the best way to use MIECHV dollars to address the unique needs of their communities. States decide which populations to serve and how best to serve them, choosing from a number of federally-approved, evidence-based models. It’s in part because of this flexibility along with its voluntary nature and documented successes that home visiting enjoys support in Congress that is truly broad, deep and bipartisan. Currently our congressional members are debating whether to reauthorize and increase funding for states through MIECHV, which would be a common-sense investment in children and families and would expand Ohio’s home visiting reach. However, even with the proposed funding, our state falls short of having the capacity to supply these services to all of the mothers and families who need them.
Given its success and popularity, it seems likely that Congress will ensure MIECHV continues at some funding level. But in these complicated political times, even that cannot be taken for granted. There are still far too many Ohio mothers who would qualify and benefit from evidence-based home visiting services that our state does not have the capacity to serve. This Mother’s Day, let’s commit – and ask Congress to commit – not just to reauthorizing MIECHV at current levels, but to increase its investment in Ohio’s moms and their families.