Helping HANDS for New Parents

By Joyce West | 12/19/15 9:00 AM


Brandon Fallen was nervous with his first child. He didn’t think he was great with kids, and he didn’t understand how to bond with a baby.

With a second baby on the way, help arrived at the front door through Kentucky’s HANDS program. A HANDS home visitor helped Brandon and his wife, Heather, learn how to tune in to the baby’s needs.

“With this one it’s totally different,” he said. “I immediately, you know, try to get to his needs—before sometimes Mommy does.”

Through HANDS home visits, new and expectant parents get information about parenting skills, child safety, and baby development—information that is often sorely needed.

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“Babies don’t come with instruction books. The doctors and nurses don’t follow you home from the hospital,” said Shawna Thomerson, HANDS supervisor in the Clark County Health Department and a national trainer for the “Growing Great Kids” program used by HANDS. “And so there’s a lot of questions and concerns that come up that you really don’t anticipate.”

Help from HANDS can begin during pregnancy or any time before a child is 3 months old. HANDS (which stands for Health Access Nurturing Development Services) takes referrals from the doctor’s office, the health department, churches, friends or family. Participation is voluntary, and local health departments enroll families.

Services are available until the child is 2 years old.

The frequency of the home visits depends on the family’s needs, but HANDS home visitors usually try to see families on a weekly basis. “The more frequent our visits are, the more regular our visits are, the better our outcomes are,” said Thomerson.

‘The Foundation for all Learning’

HANDS home visitors give parents research-based information on development. The emotional attachment a baby forms with parents is crucial to brain development.

“Emotional development and attachment is the foundation for all learning, and I think it’s imperative that all parents realize that, “ said Brenda English, the HANDS program coordinator for the Kentucky Department for Public Health. “We have to have those positive emotional connections for other learning to occur.”

English said home visitation programs are sometimes called a child’s first preschool. “And I love that, because really what we’re doing is taking information out to the parent and helping them to be their child’s first teacher.”

Fallen learned to appreciate how his responsive parenting in early childhood would lay the groundwork for his child’s education. “That’s one thing I want to do right,” he said.

Young parents are often told not to pick up their baby every time it cries. But HANDS home visitors say babies cannot be spoiled by nurturing.

“I tell that to everyone,” former HANDS parent Jennifer Duty said. “Because, you know, I think there’s old wives’ tales and that kind of stuff—if he’s crying, oh, he’ll be okay. But you really want to nurture them and pick them up, because that kind of helps build their trust in you.

“And once they build their trust and their confidence in you, then they can learn so much more.”

Evaluations by REACH of Louisville have found that HANDS participants have lower rates of preterm birth, infant mortality, developmental delay, emergency room usage, and substantiated child abuse and neglect compared with nonparticipants.

Dealing with Stress

Thomerson said HANDS home visitors are trained to identify strengths in the family and help new parents build on them. “We’re real clear that it’s not our job to go in and tell parents what to do, how to behave, and how to live their lives—and that doesn’t change parenting,” she explained. “What changes things for people is encouraging them to think differently.”

HANDS parents learn how to deal with behavior that can cause parents stress. Crystal Torres Rodriguez learned how to prevent her toddler daughter’s meltdowns during trips to the store.

She manages that, she explained, “by giving her food before we leave, telling her exactly what we’re going to do at the store, what to expect so that she would be prepared for it. And I wouldn’t have her throwing herself on the floor while we were there.”

HANDS parents particularly appreciate the information about stress and brain development. “I didn’t know that stress causes a baby’s brain to kind of just shut off,” said Heather Fallen. “So when they’re under stressful situations, like a lot of yelling and fighting, it’s really bad for their brains. I did not know that.”

English said all parents suffer from stress occasionally and could use the extra support that HANDS can provide. “We have a lot of new information that even some professionals aren’t aware of,” said English.

HANDS home visitors enjoy working with parents. “We feel very lucky that they let us come to see them,” Thomerson said. “Because we know they want the best for their kids.”

For more information about the program, visit the HANDS website.

foundation_logo2013Health Three60 is a KET production, funded in part by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.