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Could More Home Visits Improve Outcomes for Mississippi Moms and Kids?

Future of current programs uncertain as officials hope for congressional reauthorization.

When Rosa Valentin found out she was pregnant at age 14, she turned to her OB-GYN for help and got information that helped change her life. The teenager found out she qualified for the federally-funded Nurse-Family Partnership program, a home-visiting program that provides the regular assistance of a nurse to low-income expectant mothers to help them through their pregnancy and the first two years of motherhood.

Valentin started to receive an hour-long visit from a nurse every two weeks through the local Nurse-Family Partnership program at Lancaster General Health/Penn Medicine in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She learned how to take care of herself during pregnancy and how to prepare to have a child. “As a teen mom, when I was pregnant, I felt very emotional and not supported,” Valentin said. “I needed somebody else, other than my mom, who was going to be able to tell me what to do when that baby comes.”

After her daughter was born, Valentin’s nurse continued to visit, teaching the teen mother how to care for her newborn. The nurse showed her how to give her baby a bath, walking Valentin through the full procedure, including how to check the water temperature and support her baby’s head. She helped Valentin with breastfeeding, discipline, and balancing schoolwork with motherhood.

Advocates of home-visiting say these programs provide a way for states to help struggling mothers and babies. The programs also offer a possible way for states with high percentages of vulnerable children — like Mississippi — to bring those numbers down. In 2014, the state had the highest percentage of preterm births as well as the highest infant mortality rate. Mississippi also had the highest percentage of children who visited an emergency room due to accident or injury in 2013, and one of the lowest percentages of mothers who initiated breastfeeding.

A recent study of the Memphis Nurse-Family Partnership program by economist James Heckman found that access to one-on-one help from a nurse provides many benefits to mothers and babies, including higher birth weights for boys, better socio-emotional skills for girls, and more positive parenting attitudes. A growing body of research shows home-visiting programs, in general, can improve school readiness and support child cognitive development and health.

These programs “really change the future for the most vulnerable babies born into poverty,” said Sarah McGee, national director of advocacy at Nurse-Family Partnership.

Despite these benefits, funding for the Nurse-Family Partnership program, as well as 17 other home-visiting programs, is in limbo. Congress has until the end of September to reauthorize the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program bill. If it does not, thousands of mothers and babies could lose access to services that participants say are invaluable.

Mississippi is one of eight states that do not have a nurse-family partnership program. The state does use MIECHV money to fund a home-visiting program called Healthy Families Mississippi, which aims to improve parent-child interactions, improve health and academic outcomes, and connect families with community services. In 2016, officials trained in child health, safety, and development visited 739 families in Mississippi through this program, which serves pregnant mothers and families with infants under the age of three months.

In 2016, 160,000 children and parents nationwide were served through a home-visiting program funded by MIECHV. Although home-visiting programs vary, most involve a trained professional who visits families regularly to help them with a variety of topics, such as parenting skills and screening children for developmental delays, and who teaches parents about breastfeeding, nutrition, and safe sleep habits.

Valentin’s experience with the program set her on a new trajectory. She is planning on attending school to become a nurse, and her daughter is now an energetic and talkative 2-year-old. “I wanted to be the best mom I could be,” Rosa said. “And I feel like with [the Nurse-Family Partnership], it’s definitely made me the best mom I can be.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization.

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