The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board is focusing on giving babies a good start. The board serves as an advocate for tribes in South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska. At this year’s Tribal Chairmen’s Health Summit, leaders and health officials came together to discuss how to prevent and mitigate stress in the first one thousand days of child’s life.
Leaders at the annual health summit had a lot to discuss during the two days of meetings. Officials say Native Americans face many health disparities…higher rates of diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, as well as higher rates of risk factors and unintentional injuries. That’s why this year, they’ve chosen to focus on improving health right from the very beginning, by giving babies a healthier start in life. Doctor David Willis is with the Maternal and Child Health Bureau with the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration. He says the first few days of a child’s life are extremely important.
“We’re talking about the fundamental foundations of human development and how critically important the first thousand days of a baby’s young life is to creating the strengths for health, education, child wellness, school readiness, mental health, and spiritual wellbeing,” Willis says. “So the first thousand days are the period with which those skills are embedded into the very essence of who the person becomes.”
Willis says in some ways, the first thousand days for a child growing up in Indian country are put at a greater risk than those of children in other areas.
“Solely because of the challenges of the previous generation of now young parents who’ve had both the historical trauma or their own challenges of trauma that currently exist for them or simply the stress of hard living,” Willis says. “This is not true of all families but certainly for a large majority of families that we know who have health disparities or issues of stress, trauma, substance abuse and alcoholism issues.”
That stress and trauma is known as an adverse childhood experience. Doctor Donald Warne is the Director of the Master of Public Health program at North Dakota State University. He says children who have to deal with these adverse experiences often have poorer health as adults.
“In other populations around the country outside of South Dakota where they’ve done this particular study they see that the actual number of adverse childhood experiences correlates with things like depression, substance abuse, suicide attempts,” Warne says. “But in addition to that it correlates also with rates of cancer, rates of diabetes, rates of heart disease. So I think there’s an emerging science looking at the importance of the conditions that children grow up in and how that links to health in adulthood.”
Speakers at the summit point out that many parents in Indian country are raising children while still trying to heal from their own adverse childhood experiences. Jerilyn LeBeau Church is the Chief Executive Officer for the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board. She says it’s important to be aware of the historical experiences and the wounds that tribal members carry with them.
“There’s this cycle of healing that needs to take place,” LeBeau Church says. “And really we can look to evidence based protocols, but we also need to look to our own culture. We need to go back to our own ways of praying and our own traditional values that our ancestors left to us. And that in itself can bring a tremendous amount of healing to our communities.”
LeBeau Church says in order to bring healing and help the next generation of babies, states, tribes, and different programs and agencies are going to have to work together. It’s a theme that ran throughout the conference: no single agency can solve all of the problems affecting health in Indian country. Leaders say it takes a whole community working together to raise a healthy child.
And officials are hopeful. David Willis with the Maternal and Child Health Bureau says every new baby provides an opportunity for change.
“So our hope is always that despite challenges of the past, that can be managed effectively and directly, intentionally to help the next generation of young children to be healthy and thrive and develop,” Willis says. “And we know that work can happen by intention, by how a community surrounds families of young children, how stories of trauma and challenges are brought into meaningful dialogues and support so that people can begin to find a new way of being present with their new babies and not having the past invade the future.”
Willis says babies are resilient and can thrive if they are surrounded by people who are hopeful and committed to help the next generation succeed. Officials with the Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board hope that leaders who attended the summit are now armed with more information to help create communities full people determined to give babies the best possible start.