Nick Kristof is right: it begins early, in the home

Kris and I both appreciated this article by Nick Kristof: love, hugs, and family attentiveness is where it all begins and where it can all crumble with toxic stress. Moms and dads, love those babies.

PERHAPS the most widespread peril children face isn’t guns, swimming pools or speeding cars. Rather, scientists are suggesting that it may be “toxic stress” early in life, or even before birth.

This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics is issuing a landmark warning that this toxic stress can harm children for life. I’m as skeptical as anyone of headlines from new medical studies (Coffee is good for you! Coffee is bad for you!), but that’s not what this is.

Rather, this is a “policy statement” from the premier association of pediatricians, based on two decades of scientific research. This has revolutionary implications for medicine and for how we can more effectively chip away at poverty and crime.

Toxic stress might arise from parental abuse of alcohol or drugs. It could occur in a home where children are threatened and beaten. It might derive from chronic neglect — a child cries without being cuddled. Affection seems to defuse toxic stress — keep those hugs and lullabies coming! — suggesting that the stress emerges when a child senses persistent threats but no protector.

Cues of a hostile or indifferent environment flood an infant, or even a fetus, with stress hormones like cortisol in ways that can disrupt the body’s metabolism or the architecture of the brain….

“You can modify behavior later, but you can’t rewire disrupted brain circuits,” notes Jack P. Shonkoff, a Harvard pediatrician who has been a leader in this field. “We’re beginning to get a pretty compelling biological model of why kids who have experienced adversity have trouble learning.”


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  • Paul W



  • Prodigal Daughter

    Jason, if you read the NYT article that is linked to the article the blog post is linked to, you’ll see it way more than just common sense. Pretty fascinating stuff:

  • Rodney

    My wife is a speech pathologist who works with other therepists (occupational, physical) and they have been noticing for quite sometime developmental delays in children because they’ve been neglected–not purposively, mind you. They call them “bucket babies” because parents tend to transport their children from car to house to swings to high chairs without taking them out of their infant carriers. These children are delayed in speech, in crawling/walking, in sensory issues (eating, textures, etc) because they spend no “tummy time” trying to wiggle and crawl.

  • Jeremy

    My wife and I have always had a major problem with the whole Ezzo/Ferber approach, especially when it comes to infants, even though everyone around us seemed to be doing it. Some people would look at us like we had two heads when they realized we were going the so-called “attachment” route. I don’t know that we could have articulated the matter, but we both felt on a pretty deep level that establishing a foundational level of trust was crucial to our children, even if it cost us some sleep. This article seems affirm that instinct and I’m grateful for that.

  • Tami M

    What one can hope is that studies like this will drive policies that make it more possible for those who are more likely to be dealing with toxic stressors to have a little easier time of it. Or to put more head start preschools in problem areas to help the children deal with it.

  • Jason

    Here’s toxic stress. There are families in our area who send their kids off to school in the morning. After school, they go directly to daycare until midnight. Every weekday because both mom and dad are working. That *will not* be healthy for these young ones. I’m just saying (and that is my professional opinion).

  • DLS

    That second paragraph makes it sound like he hates science like those backwards Republicans 🙂

  • Fish

    It’s another way that poverty creates a self-reinforcing cycle of more poverty.

    As far as both parents working so long and hard that even middle- or upper-class children spend their days and nights in daycare, some (but definitely not all) of that is due to the view that greed is good and that capitalism is God’s favored economic system. Unbridled capitalism eats children the same way it eats any inefficiency or non-value-added person.

  • Tom F.

    I really like the line: “Liberals sometimes ignore these self-destructive pathologies. Conservatives sometimes rely on them to blame poverty on the poor. ”

    I think focus on these sort of issues may provide bi-partisan ways to address poverty that may cut through the current political gridlock on these issues. Conservatives need to acknowledge that people are influenced by these sort of factors, and that the American ideal of equal opportunity is undermined by cycles of poverty.

    Liberals need to acknowledge that many of the issues that cause stress are moral as well as economic and systematic issues, and moral communities like churches are essential to a healthy society.