Giving a Baby a Better Life

    • March 13, 2012

“[Valerie] was that one voice. That’s all I needed. She never made it sound like I couldn’t do it. She used to tell me all the time I was a survivor. She really believed in me.”—Nurse-Family Partnership client

It’s not easy to be a new mom. You need more than health care. You need someone who will listen to, counsel and encourage you. You need someone to tell you how best to care for your baby. And sometimes, you just need a shoulder to lean on.

For young, low-income women who are first-time parents, the needs can be even greater.

Thanks to the Nurse-Family Partnership, many of them have somewhere to turn.

The Nurse-Family Partnership brings nurses into the homes of vulnerable new moms to give them the support they need to help their babies get a healthy start. The program was conceived in 1977, when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) decided to invest in a revolutionary approach to improving the lives of young, high risk, first-time moms and their babies.

That approach was the brainchild of David Olds, whose first job was at a day care center housed in a church basement in West Baltimore, M.D. There, Olds discovered that the children at the center who were most difficult to work with because of behavioral or developmental problems tended to have very young mothers, some of whom were addicted to drugs or alcohol. His experiences led him to return to school to earn a PhD in developmental psychology. During his studies at Cornell University, Olds developed the elements of a new model program to help improve outcomes for high-risk teen mothers and their babies.

The concept was first tested through a demonstration project, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, that sent public health nurses to make home visits to new teen mothers before and after their babies were born. The nurses provided the guidance and support the young women needed to improve their own health, be better parents, and prepare for the emotional, social and physical challenges of parenthood. Olds tested his hypothesis with trials, first in Elmira, N.Y., and then in Memphis, Tenn., and Denver, Colo. He found that the visits improved the health and development of babies as well as the health and financial well-being of their mothers.

In 1999, RWJF awarded him a $10 million grant to support a six-year national roll-out of the model, which at the time had undergone 20 years of testing. The goal was to reach 10,000 families in 100 communities through what was then called the Nurse Home Visiting Program. The investment paid off. The babies the program reached had better overall health and fewer injuries. And the moms had fewer subsequent pregnancies, longer intervals between births, increased employment, and improved school readiness. The program also attracted funding from a variety of sources to expand to more cities and states.

Today, what started as a demonstration project in southern New York has blossomed into the Nurse-Family Partnership, an independent nonprofit organization headquartered in Denver that has sites in 34 states. The group oversees quality control, trains nurses, monitors programs, ensures accuracy in reporting, and coordinates the development of new sites. It has made a lasting difference in the lives of more than 140,000 families, giving new babies the strong start they need to survive—and thrive.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation salutes the Nurse-Family Partnership for giving babies a healthy start.