SALT LAKE CITY — Becoming a new mom is always challenging, but especially for those who don't have the resources they need. Intermountain Healthcare's 'Healthy Kids' initiative partners with Salt Lake County on an evidence-based early childhood development program to help young families. One first-time mother shares her experience.
Little Loretta Vigil is 22 months old and growing every day. Her mother, Aremis Morales, says life's had its challenges. "Before she was born, I was going through a rough patch and then she was born and I just snapped back and got my life together," Morales described.
When Morales found out she was pregnant she connected with the Salt Lake County Health Department's Nurse-Family Partnership, a program designed for first-time moms who could benefit from additional support.
She was paired up with Crystal Bull, her own personal registered nurse, who met with Morales regularly throughout her pregnancy and will continue to assist her until Loretta is 2 years old. "Any question that I had from there, she would answer it and I had a lot of questions, a lot of concerns," Morales explained. "You can text her, you can call her and she'll answer them."
Morales said Bull has helped her with a wide variety of topics — anything from pregnancy and labor, to breastfeeding and nutrition, and safe sleeping techniques.
"I remember that when my water broke, I did not freak out," Morales said. "She helped me stay calm during that time."
When Loretta was born a month early, Bull taught her how to help the baby latch on, overcome painful breastfeeding experiences and to know when she was hungry
"There's a lot of factors to breastfeeding that I didn't know," Morales said. "I developed the mentality of 'I'm feeding my baby, I'm creating a bond with my baby, and breast milk is the best way to go,'" she said.
Morales said through the program, Bull helped her with child development activities, like turning games into learning opportunities for Loretta. "She's taught me a lot of ways to develop her brain like with colors, numbers, toys," she said.
Additionally, Bull also helped Morales with physical needs, connecting her to the food bank and a program to help pay for utilities and other assistance. "Sometimes, I couldn't afford to buy clothes for her so she gave me a voucher for the D.I.," she said.
Morales says even as Loretta's gotten older she still has questions for Bull. "She's honestly helped me a lot, even now that she's older, I still have my questions," she said. "She makes you feel comfortable… I feel like I can rely on her a lot of things."
"She's a hard, hard worker, a great mother and it's really cool to see what our clients really are capable of," Bull said of Morales.
Bull says a mother's role is critical to a child's progression. "Mom is kind of the hinge pin — she's the one who's providing for the child, who's the one teaching the child," she described. "By creating that really strong base, that mother can really help the child to grow into a healthy, stable adult."
Dr. Neal Davis, a pediatrician with Intermountain Healthcare, says a lack of basic needs can affect a child's development. "It changes the basic stress response in children, it changes the way our body's immune systems work," he explained.
He said these stressors have a long-term impact on the overall health of a child. "It can put children at risk over time, not only for mental health conditions, like depression or anxiety or suicidality, but also things like diabetes and heart disease and stroke and cancer," Davis explained.
In other extreme cases, Davis says stressors like physical or emotional abuse, or substance use issues can also affect the development of a child.
"Those types of significant stressors can impact even the expression of genes," he said.
Davis says the antidote is simple — loving and nurturing that child. "Taking the time to hold the young child on your lap and read a story or get on the ground and play like you're dogs chasing each other," he suggested. "Lots of talking and singing and interacting and reading."
He said children are particularly resilient. "If we can give children nurturing, they can navigate. Children are remarkable," he said.
According to research, Davis says that type of love counters the negative effects. "There's a lot of strong data that that type of an interaction can literally buffer a child who may be living in a home with very, very stressful circumstances. Nurturing actually does heal," he said.
Morales said becoming a mother has changed her. "It's pretty awesome being a mom," she said. "I'd do anything for her, just to make sure that she has a healthy and stable home… I'm giving her the best there is." She is now expecting her second baby and feels much more prepared this time around.
Anyone who meets WIC or Medicaid income level requirements qualifies for the free program. For those interested in enrolling, visit the Salt Lake County Health Department's website, call 385-468-3955, text 844-637-6667, or email HomeVisiting@slco.org.