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Posts from the ‘Parenting’ Category

Talk is Cheap – and Priceless

By Abbe Hensley, Executive Director, Best Beginnings

img_3695web_24049455834_oPeople say talk is cheap, but for babies, talk is priceless. Talking with babies has been shown to have an amazing impact on the growth of their brains and development of language, key to their future success in school and in life. And, unlike products that are advertised to parents as critical to making their babies smart, talking is free!

Have you heard of the 30-million word gap?

It all began with the 1995 landmark study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley in their book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children:

“In four years, an average child in a professional family would accumulate experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family 13 million words.”

At first, the focus was primarily on the number of words a child heard. There were discussions about whether words a child heard from television or recordings would “count.” Was it only the quantity of words that made the difference?

Taking a closer look at Hart and Risley’s conclusions, however, people began to appreciate that there were meaningful differences in the quality of the words, too. Children in professional families heard six positive messages for every negative one. Children in middle-class families heard two positive messages for every negative one. And children in poor families heard only one positive message for every two negative ones.

More parents in the last category were using “business talk” with their young children. For example, the child drops a spoon. These parents were more likely to be directive and say, “Pick it up.” Parents in the professional category were more apt to say, “Oh, you dropped your spoon. Pick it up from under the table and we’ll take it to the sink to wash it. Then you can use it again.” A much richer language experience for the child.

This short video tells and shows the story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5BAO204Sqo

More recently, Stanford University researchers have observed that these differences emerge as early as 18 months. The effects persist through the school years. The good news: if parents increase the quantity and quality of their verbal interactions, their babies benefit. Many organizations are tackling the issue and resources are developing all the time.

So what can parents and other caring adults in a baby’s life do? One of the organizations working on this, the LENA Research Foundation, has an easy way to remember what to do that is called “words and turns.” “Words” refers to the quantity of words a child is exposed to, and “turns” means the interactions between adult and baby that can also be described as “serve-and-return” activities – baby begins to babble, adult talks back, baby vocalizes again.

According to a story in Education Week in April 2015, Jill Gilkerson, LENA’s director of child-language research, said, “Conversational turns are vastly more important than the number of words a child is exposed to.” She went on to say that she and her colleagues found parents of children who scored in the top 10 percent on preschool language tests had conversations with their children that involved 18 more turns taken per hour than parents of children scoring in the bottom 80 percent.

It’s obvious that both words and turns are important in helping babies and toddlers develop language. What role might shared book reading play? Stephen F. Warren, PhD, says, “Reading together with a young child in a way that promotes interaction and turn-taking is among the most important routines that can be built into a child’s day. It should be a high priority every day.”

The best time for families to develop routines like this is shortly after the birth of a new baby. In fact, in June 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement recommending for the first time that parents should read with their children beginning in infancy. The statement also says that “reading aloud with young children has been found to increase the richness of the vocabulary to which they are exposed as well as the complexity of syntax. In addition, books and early conversations and play around books and reading stimulate increased interaction between the adult and child. These interactions build nurturing relationships that are critical for the child’s cognitive, language, and social-emotional development.”

Research and common sense agree: it’s words and turns. Parents who talk with their babies and young children, whose conversation includes lots of “serve-and-return” moments, and who read with their children from the time they’re born, are promoting crucial brain development and setting the stage for their children’s success in school, and in life.

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For more on the 30-million word gap, go to https://www.bestbeginningsalaska.org/why-early-learning-matters/the-30-million-word-gap.

Abbe Hensley is the executive director of Best Beginnings, a public-private partnership that mobilizes people and resources to ensure all Alaska children begin school ready to succeed through support from businesses, foundations, nonprofits, government, and individuals.

 

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Pregnancy, Nursing and Marijuana: What’s the Real Story?

By Trevor Storrs, Alaska Children’s Trust Executive Director

With the passing of the recreational use of marijuana in Alaska nearly two years ago, there has been a lot of conversation regarding the potential impacts, good and bad. One of the controversial topics discussed has been pregnant and nursing mothers using marijuana and its potential effects on newborns.

First, let me say that I’m neither a doctor nor a medical expert of any kind. Rather, this post is to inform you about the main arguments for and against marijuana use while pregnant and nursing. There are so many conflicting opinions on the topic that the sheer amount of information can make it difficult to determine how much merit to afford any of the research. So, rather than you looking through countless disparate articles, I’ve collected the main research that seemed to be accepted as true across the many articles reviewed.

It is important to note that all the literature published on the topic is based on research methods like surveys, self-reported data, and tertiary forms of testing (infant development and levels of THC in breastmilk) (Beckett, 2016). The most valid research would involve controlled human studies; however, this would be unethical. Marijuana is equated with heroin in regards to its potential for harm, so researchers can’t expose pregnant or nursing mothers to cannabis to test its effects. This isn’t to suggest that the research conducted thus far is invalid; it just means there are other research methods that could better control confounding variables.

Research has shown correlations between cannabis use during pregnancy and fetal harm:

  • There have been reports documenting a decrease in fetal growth (Merritt, Wilkinson, & Chervanak, 2016).
  • It’s also been found that pregnant women who use cannabis are at a 2.3 times greater risk of stillbirth (Abuse, n.d.).
  • In addition, prenatal exposure has been correlated with a two to three times increased risk of subsequent child maltreatment (Merritt, et al., 2016).

This data was collected from the states where recreational marijuana use has been legalized (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington).

There’s no safe amount of cannabis to consume during pregnancy, despite the reason for using and the method used to ingest it (Good to Know, n.d.). Some women think that since it’s legal, then cannabis must be safe, but the legality does not constitute its safety.

Additionally, people discount cannabis’ harm because it’s a naturally occurring substance (Good to Know, n.d.). The issue with that argument is that it suggests that all naturally occurring things are safe to consume. Since that’s not true, it can’t be used to support the lack of harm that cannabis poses. There are several naturally occurring substances that are harmful for you and your baby: lead, tobacco and poisonous berries are a few (Good to Know, n.d.). The bottom line is that the potential for harm from cannabis use during pregnancy is high.

If the risks of cannabis use during pregnancy do not pose enough of a threat, there have been even more negative effects found from cannabis use while breastfeeding. The reigning opinion is to avoid cannabis for the entire time you choose to breastfeed your child. Even though it’s preferred that you breastfeed for a year, doctors recommend that mothers breastfeed for a minimum of six months (Conover, 2016). In just one feeding, an infant will ingest 0.8 percent of the weight adjusted maternal intake of one joint, and the infant will excrete THC in their urine for two to three weeks after (Merritt, et al., 2016).

Research has found that infants exposed to cannabis through breastmilk exhibit decreased motor development and executive functioning, and poor sucking reflex. Meanwhile, mothers who use cannabis have a reduced milk supply. When you consider the poor sucking reflex and reduction in milk supply in conjunction, you get an infant with an increased risk of what’s officially called “failure to thrive,” which occurs when the infant is undernourished and fails to meet milestones in his or her first year of life.

This is a fairly new topic that has been assigned a lot of stigma and misconceptions, and the last thing I want is to add to that. The facts presented here are simply for educational purposes. What you do after reading them is entirely up to you. I’m not here to pass judgment or tell you how to live your life, but I do feel an obligation to advocate for Alaska’s children.

Children deserve every opportunity afforded to them, and parents sacrifice a lot to give their children those opportunities. However, when you use cannabis while pregnant or nursing, you are putting all those sacrifices at risk. Don’t take away from your child’s well-being before they’ve even taken their first breath. Make the sacrifice, and give your child every opportunity to thrive.

Sources:

Free Screening of “Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope”

Alaska has one of the top five rates of child abuse in the United States. Without treatment, sexual and physical abuse and witnessing domestic violence or neglect can cause serious health and social problems that last into adulthood.

Join Providence Alaska Foundation, Alaska CARES and Alaska Children’s Trust for a free screening of “Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope,” a documentary that chronicles the movement among pediatricians, therapists, educators and communities, who are using cutting-edge neuroscience to disrupt cycles of violence, addiction and disease.

The free screening will take place Thursday, August 10 at 49th State Brewery Heritage Theatre at 717 W. 3rd Ave. in Anchorage. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the screening begins at 6 p.m. A panel discussion will follow.

Please RSVP to 907-212-2554 by August 3.

resilience

Strengthening Families Alaska is on the Move!

By Shirley Pittz, Strengthening Families consultant 

strengthening families logoStrengthening FamiliesTM is an effort to help families give their children what they need to thrive. It’s about parents taking advantage of their unique strengths and ensuring they have the skills and supports they need to make sure their children – and family as a whole – are safe, secure and happy. The outcomes that Strengthening Families programs strive to achieve are strong families, optimal child development and the prevention of child maltreatment.

Strengthening Families Alaska (SFA) is supported by the Early Childhood Comprehensive System Program (ECCS) in the Department of Health and Social Services and a leadership team consisting of several statewide stakeholder organizations. During FY17, SFA has focused on the Norton Sound Region, Kodiak Island and the Mat-Su Valley. Efforts are underway to embed the Strengthening Families “framework” across agencies and service sectors. In Kodiak, Kodiak Area Native Association (KANA) is leading the way. In the Norton Sound Region it is the Norton Sound Health Corporation and in the Mat-Su Valley it is the Mat-Su Health Foundation.

SFA efforts are supported by the University of Alaska Anchorage Child Welfare Academy (CWA). CWA has several certified trainers who can deliver the two-day intensive Strengthening Families training developed by the National Alliance of Children’s Trust and Prevention Funds. In addition to the regions discussed above, in FY17, training was provided to service providers in Bethel, 30 behavioral health aides at the ANTHC Annual BHS Symposium, RurAL CAP family advocates, Office of Children’s Services grantees, and the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. To date, the CWA has trained over 300 people in this approach!

Primary care providers received some focused attention this year since parents frequently look to them for reassurance and guidance on child and family issues. In November 2016, the All Alaska Pediatric Partnership (A2P2) rolled out a Strengthening Families Toolkit for Primary Care Providers that was developed with funding provided through a grant from Alaska Children’s Trust. An accompanying two-hour training was also developed and offered at the fall Pediatric Symposium in Anchorage. Additionally training on the Toolkit was provided in Juneau and Fairbanks and on a statewide “Learning Network” webinar.

Across the state, communities and providers are embedding the Strengthening Families approach in the work that they do. “Small but significant” changes in everyday practice can make a huge difference for families.

PROTECTIVE FACTORS:

Strengthening Families is built around five “protective factors.” Protective factors help families succeed and thrive, even in the face of risk and challenges. The protective factors are:

Parental Resilience Be Strong Even When You Are Stressed!

  • Resilience is the process of managing stress and functioning well even when things are difficult.

Social Connections Get and Give Support!

  • Sometimes being a parent can be very stressful. It’s easier to handle parenting challenges when we have positive relationships with family, friends and neighbors. Having a network of caring people in our life helps us feel secure, confident and empowered – and this helps us become better parents.

Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development – Learn More So You Can Parent Better!

  • There is no such thing as a perfect parent, but knowing what to expect does make the job a lot easier.

Concrete Support in Times of Need Get Help When You Need It!

  • All families go through tough times. However, knowing where to get help in the community can make things a lot easier.

Social & Emotional Competence Help Your Child Manage Feelings and Relationships!

  • Helping children develop social-emotional competence allows them to manage their emotions and build healthy relationships with their peers and adults. The things we do to model and help our children learn these skills makes a huge difference.

For more information about Strengthening Families Alaska and how you might get involved, please contact one of the following:

For more information about the Strengthening FamiliesTM approach, visit the Center for the Study for Social Policy website.

Stay Safe and Have Fun on the Water this Summer

Water Safety Tips from the Red Cross of Alaska

By Lisa Miller, Red Cross of Alaska Regional Communications Officer

In Alaska, we are great at capitalizing on these short but precious summer months. With nearly 24 hours of sunlight and endless exploration opportunities, adults and children alike are itching to get out and get on the water.

Whether you’re heading out for a day of deep sea halibut fishing, or kayaking around your neighborhood lake, take a few moments to consider these aquatic safety tips from the Red Cross of Alaska before you and the kids head out to make a splash.

Plan Ahead

First thing’s first. Before making plans to spend time in or around water with your children, make sure you all know how to swim.

It is the mission of the Red Cross to prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. The Red Cross Swimming and Water Safety program helps fulfill that mission by teaching people to be safe in, on and around the water through water safety courses for individuals of a wide range of ages and abilities. American Red Cross Aquatics and Safety Classes are offered at many pools across the state of Alaska. Call your local pool to learn more about classes.

Once the entire family knows how to swim, you’re ready to plan your first trip out on the water. As your trip draws near, remember to check the weather. Weather conditions can change suddenly, so always check the forecast before heading out.

In the event you run into bad weather or an emergency situation, Ray Miller, a Red Cross of Alaska volunteer and member of the United States Power Squadrons (USPS) in Fairbanks, says it’s a good idea to pack some means of communicating, such as a whistle and signal mirror that can be used to alert a rescuer. A hand crank radio is a good item to have packed away in a wet bag as well. It will ensure you always have a way to tune in to local weather reports and emergency messaging.

You can build your own boat first aid/survival kit, or shop the Red Cross Store for a ready-to-go kit.

Miller also suggests telling someone when you go out on the water. If you are going out for just a few hours, let someone know where you plan to go, and when you will return. If you are planning a boat trip longer than a few hours, Miller says to file a written float plan. According to the USPS, a float plan includes a description of your boat, who is on board, a description of the safety equipment you are carrying, where you expect to be, and when you expect to be there.

You can download a USPS float plan here: http://www.usps.org/o_stuff/fp_form.html.

USPS says the person holding your float plan should notify the Coast Guard or other appropriate agency if you do no not return within a reasonable time.

circle of drowning preventionLife Jackets. Life Jackets. Life Jackets … Did We Mention Life Jackets?

There’s a lot involved in boating/water safety, especially for children, but a key factor is that everyone, especially children, use properly fitted, U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets whenever they are on, in and around the water.

“The best tip I would have for parents of kids is to set the example for your kids and always wear a life jacket when boating,” Miller says. “Second suggestion would be to buy your child a life jacket that fits them and is appropriate for the activity they will be engaged in and most importantly one they will wear. Third, take your child to a pool or other swimming area and let them try out their life jacket to gain confidence that it will keep them afloat.”

Miller added the water in Alaska can be very cold and even on warm sunny days it will not take long for even the strongest swimmer to become unable to swim to shore, pull themselves back into the boat or help a buddy.

How do I choose a life jacket?

When choosing a life jacket:

  • Make sure it is the right type for the activity.
  • Make sure it is U.S. Coast Guard approved. Look for the stamp on the life jacket.
  • Make sure it fits the intended user. Check the label on the life jacket for weight limits.
  • Check buckles and straps for proper function. Discard any life jacket with torn fabric or loose straps.
  • Put it on and practice swimming with it.
  • Water wings, swim rings, inflatable toys and other items designed for water recreation are not substitutes for U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets or adult supervision.

Life Jackets Aren’t Just for Boats

Young children and weak swimmers should wear life jackets whenever they are in, on or around the water, even at a pool or a waterpark. Put it on at the dock, deck or shore and don’t take it off until you are on dry land.

Finally, this Kids Don’t Float Activity Book from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources is a great way to get the kids excited for your boating trip while also teaching them to be safe around water.

May you have a safe and happy summer with your loved ones!

LMheadshotLisa Miller is the Regional Communications Officer for the Red Cross of Alaska.

Preventing Youth Suicide in Light of “13 Reasons Why”

The new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has created a lot of buzz recently around the topic of teen suicide. The show graphically chronicles a fictional teen’s suicide and, in many ways, glamorizes it.13-reasons-why

Suicide among youth is a serious concern for everyone who engages with young people – whether at home, in school, or during out-of-school time. According to the Kids Count Alaska 2013-14 data book, suicides were the second-highest cause of deaths among youth ages 10-17. And in areas outside of Anchorage, the suicide rate among youth is four times higher.

Youth who are exposed to suicide or suicidal behaviors are more at-risk for attempting suicide, according to the American Association of Suicidology. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (ASFP) notes that risks of additional suicides increase when a story explicitly describes the method, uses graphic headlines or images, and glamorizes a death.

Seeing the graphic depictions and the sensationalized story of Hannah Baker brought to life in 13 Reasons Why has become a widespread concern among parents, as well as professionals in mental health, education and afterschool.

This type of glamorization has caused widespread copycat attempts, giving us more of a reason to talk about the reality of what is happening. Silence or ignoring the issue has never made it disappear. If anything, it has provided the right environment for it to grow out of control. ASFP states that we can prevent suicide by being aware and taking action – and that means talking about it.

The National Afterschool Association created the following list with recommendations for afterschool professionals and teachers on how to handle the latest Netflix hit:

  1. Watch 13 Reasons Why.

Rather than trying to get kids to avoid watching the series or talking about it — because they will, with or without permission — watch it so you are prepared to discuss the content when it comes up.

If you hear kids talking about the series, ask how they feel about the content. Watch how they’re reacting to the topic, paying close attention to their emotions.

  1. Watch for warning signs.

AFSP notes there’s no single cause for suicide, which most often occurs “when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition.” Conditions such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse problems increase the risk for suicide — especially when unaddressed. 13 Reasons Why depicts additional triggers, including sexual assault and bullying. Most people who die by suicide exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do. Find a list of warning signs from AFSP here.

  1. If a young person exhibits warning signs, talk to him or her about it.

“Be direct,” says Valencia Agnew, Ph.D. “Don’t be afraid to ask if they’ve thought about suicide, or if someone is hurting them.”

  1. Listen to young people – without judgment.

Get kids to tell their stories while they’re alive — not after they’ve made a permanent decision to what could be a temporary problem.

“Listen to children’s comments without judgment,” Agnew said. “Doing so requires that you fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what is being said. Put your own agenda aside.”

If you have concerns, consider reaching out to prominent adults in the young person’s life that you trust. Ask the adults if they’ve noticed anything unusual.

  1. Validate young people’s feelings.

Feelings aren’t always facts, but never downplay a young person’s stress level or emotions. Instead, try to understand and show you care. “Avoid giving advice to fix it,” said Agnew. “Pain isn’t going to kill them. It’s what they do with the pain.”

  1. If needed, get help.

If a young person you know is having thoughts of suicide, reassure him or her that you’ll help —then act. It’s not expected that the typical afterschool professional or teacher has the knowledge and skills to handle this alone. Work with the school and other trusted adults to find local resources available for help. Suicide Awareness Voices of Education offers a number of resources and tools, and is a great place to start.

Afterschool hours continue at home. Share these guidelines for parents and guardians on suicide prevention, in light of the series. Together we can ensure our children live in a safe, stable and nurturing environment.

Alaska CARES: Coming Together to Help Kids Heal After Abuse

By Bryant Skinner, Alaska CARES Manager

Bryant Skinner head shot

Bryant Skinner, Alaska CARES

According to the Child Welfare League of America, Alaska consistently has one of the top five rates of child abuse in the United States. In Alaska last year, at least 8,000 children were physically or sexually abused, and this represents only reported cases[i].

Adverse childhood experiences like these cause toxic levels of stress that can strain and weaken children’s health and development, and can lead to lifelong social, emotional and cognitive impairments. Often these impairments result in the adoption of high-risk behaviors, disease, disability and social problems. In fact, children experiencing trauma are 49 percent more likely as adults to be unemployed and 92 percent more likely to earn less than $20,000 annually. Child trauma contributes to 60 percent experiencing frequent mental distress into adulthood. Additionally, the impacts of repeated adverse experiences can even lead to early death.

The statistics are grim, but we don’t have to let our children become statistics. Studies show that doing just two simple things can help children grow and thrive:

  1. First, we can invest in primary prevention models that reduce children’s exposure to trauma, or sustained, severe adversity.
  2. Second, we can support early intervention that helps children heal when traumas are experienced, and support children developing resiliency through positive, healthy, supportive relationships.

Alaska CARES is one program that specializes in the second strategy. Alaska CARES is a Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC), a comprehensive, child-centered program based in a facility where victim-advocate, law enforcement, child protection, tribal health, forensic medicine, and mental health professionals are co-located and work together in cases of child abuse.

In the old model of care, kids making a report of harm would have to go to several adult-centered locations to tell their story over and over, which was counterproductive to the child’s healing. The benefit of the CAC model is that it brings all those services together under one roof in a secure environment, designed for the privacy and dignity of young patients. Together, the multi-disciplinary team at Alaska CARES makes sure children feel safe and supported as they come forward to courageously tell their story.

One such child, we’ll call her Kimi, literally illustrates the healing power of early intervention.

Kimi was just 8 years old when she was the victim of sexual abuse by her neighbor. At the time she experienced the abuse she knew something was wrong and worked up the courage to tell the perpetrator “NO,” and then left the room. But her little sister was left with the offender. She found the courage to tell someone about the abuse and an appointment was set for her to be evaluated at Alaska CARES.

angerIt was determined during her visit that seeing a mental health therapist at Alaska CARES would be essential to starting the healing process. The first picture Kimi created (right) was completed during the first two weeks of her therapy. “Anger, Hurt, Sad, Guilt, Nervous, Scared” were the words Kimi used for this painting. She used all of the colors that she didn’t like as she began to process the trauma she experienced. 

guilt

“Guilt” was how Kimi described her painting after six months of therapy (left). Yet, her therapist noted that she was much more present in her session and no longer withdrawn! Although these colors look dark, they were colors that she actually liked and she placed an X to represent “Danger” or “Do not enter,” similar to a poison bottle. She labeled this drawing “Guilt,” which was significant in her progress toward being able to identify and resolve the more specific emotion relating to leaving her sister behind with the abuser.

peace

After one year of care at Alaska CARES, “Peace” was what Kimi called this painting (right). Kimi, her sister and her family were able to work through many emotions and develop tools to manage their feelings and build resiliency. Because Kimi was brave and disclosed the incident, her offender was held accountable for his actions. The care she received in her healing journey helped change the trajectory of Kimi’s life, her sister’s life and the health and resiliency of their entire family.

The issue of child abuse is a moral, social and human issue that impacts our entire community. The earlier the intervention, the better the intervention, and the more likely it is that we can help kids like Kimi as they grow up into adulthood. Alaska CARES demonstrates what is possible when professionals, community members and government agencies work together to support children.

If you would like more information about Alaska CARES, or if you know someone who might be helped by the services of Alaska CARES, visit their website.

[i] http://alaska.providence.org/locations/c/cares/abusefacts

 

 

 

 

Empowering Moms for Breastfeeding Success

By Jennifer Willeford

ACT.PCG.FB.coverimageNew life begins in the middle of the night and in the early hours of the morning. Mothers are created when a child enters the life of a woman. Birth is a humbling and empowering experience. All the worries and preparation subside during labor and delivery and complete calm arrives when the beautiful gift is placed into a mother’s arms. There is nothing more life affirming than holding a newborn. Nothing else matters anymore and a new journey begins.

Breastfeeding is driven by the bonding relationship of the mother and baby. It’s in the first hours, days, and weeks that a breastfeeding dyad is born. Practice makes progress and is necessary for success. Those sweet moments are fleeting and the connection needs to be guarded and protected. Mothers need to be prepared to set ground rules and the support systems need to be able to offer help that contributes to the mother’s goals. All the focus should be placed on the mother and infant. Family and friends begin to pour in and the spotlight quickly shifts to the baby. It’s hard not to be swept up in the joy and love with a sweet, soft bundle that is irresistible to hold. It is very easy to forget about mom and her needs could get lost in the shuffle.

Everyone wants to help a new mom and feeding the baby has become the coveted position. Moms are overjoyed and excited to share this beautiful gift and can have a hard time declining offers. They don’t want to deprive people the opportunity to share the experience. Breastfeeding is a chance for an infant to be at the breast and provides the opportunity to practice and learn the skills they need. Milk supply is dependent on the frequent emptying and stimulation that nursing offers. Every feeding missed at the breast can contribute to decreased supply. Every intervention creates a roadblock and potential hazard especially during the first few weeks. Mothers deserve to be stingy and set boundaries. No bottle rules can help reinforce mom’s wishes.

Having jobs and chores lined up and ready for eager helpers can prevent conflict. Emphasize that feeding is reserved for mom. People feel that “helping” after baby is born means taking care of baby but true assistance comes in the form of “supporting” the family as a new bond is formed. Mom needs to find her voice and feel confident even though she is scared and exhausted. Remind her that it’s ok that all the dishes aren’t done and the laundry is not folded. Visit her with a cup of tea or coffee in hand and offer a non-judgmental ear. In vulnerable moments mom needs guidance, a calm presence, empathy and a gentle reminder that she is doing an amazing job.

If you are visiting and unsure what to do with spare time, prepare freezer meals for the months ahead. Folding laundry and doing dishes may not seem like great jobs but they are beyond helpful. Make mom a lunch. Fill a cooler so when she sits down to breastfeed she can stay well hydrated and nourished. Bring mom a bag of healthy snacks or play a game with an older sibling. Start a meal train for the family or bring paper plates to reduce chores. Ideal opportunities to hold baby is when mom is taking a shower or sneaking a much-needed nap.

Alaska is wonderful place to raise a family. It is true that it takes a village to raise a child. It’s the responsibility of the community to give emotional support, loving guidance and create a space where families can thrive. Breastfeeding success relies heavily on empowering mothers. The most important tool a woman can have when entering the breastfeeding journey is to know there are resources, tools and people who can help. Most moms will experience a few hiccups along the way. Breastfeeding is a learning experience for both mom and baby. Finding knowledgeable professionals who can aid through the challenges and find solutions to the momentary dilemmas can make all the difference.

Every woman deserves support. Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC) and designated breastfeeding helpers can be found in many local organizations and agencies including the WIC office at the Resource Center for Parents and Children, The Women’s Center at the Hospital and Regional Public Health Offices. Help and support is always just a phone call or visit away. Encourage, inspire and uplift the new mothers and lend a hand so they can reach their breastfeeding goals.

headshot articleJennifer Willeford is an IBCLC and works for the Resource Center for Parents and Children. She is also a trained Doula. This spring she will graduate with Bachelors of Science in Crisis Counseling, Healthcare Administration and Health Sciences. Jennifer is the mother of two little boys and is familiar with the challenges of breastfeeding after she breastfeed both boys for a total of five years. Jennifer grew up in Fairbanks and completed her A.A.S in Certified Medical Assisting and Medical Coding at UAF and is active in the community with many local groups including Fairbanks Breastfeeding Coalition, 4H and Fairbanks Youth Soccer Association.

“Alaska Native culture keeps Alaska Native children safe.”

By Mary Johnson and Natalie Norberg

“Alaska Native culture keeps Alaska Native children safe.”

This is the vision statement for a five-year strategic plan created to address the disparities that Alaska Native children experience in the child welfare system. Today over 3,000 children are in the Alaska foster care system. More than half of these children are Alaska Native. This disparity is unacceptable.

blueberry boy
Recognizing that no one government agency or Tribal entity can solve this problem alone, the “Transforming Child Welfare Outcomes for Alaska Native Children Strategic Plan 2016-2020” was created as the result of a passionate and collaborative process which included numerous Tribal, state and community partners over many months. Participants talked openly and frankly about how to solve problems, reduce barriers and promote children being served closest to home within the context of their Tribe and culture whenever possible.

A personal account from a non-native foster parent:

With her little hand in mine, the two of us slowly walk down the ferry ramp into the bowels of the Le Conte, one of the oldest and smallest vessels that make up the fleet of inter-island ferries of Southeast Alaska’s Marine Highway. We are blasted by that familiar smell of salt water, marine diesel and car exhaust that permeates the parking level of the ferry before we ascend the several flights of stairs to the passenger level of the ferry. I feel weighted down as I struggle to carry the squirming child along with the numerous other packs and totes I am lugging that contain snacks and toys to keep an active toddler occupied for the four hour ferry trip. For Susie this is simply another day of her short life, where every day brings some kind of wonderment. When you are 2 years old, nothing is mundane; an ordinary walk to the park is a delight. For me, however, this day, this trip, feels far from joyful. In fact my mood feels like the dense heavy, gray clouds that press down on the forested islands we pass, layers and layers of suffocating gray.

Susie is 2.3 years old, a beautiful Alaska Native child with healthy rosy cheeks that are just beginning to shed their baby fat. She has soft, long, jet black shiny hair. Susie has been in state foster care since she was 11 months old. I am her 3rd foster home. Susie and I bonded quickly. I couldn’t wait for my work day to end and to pick her up from preschool. Although I did not ever encourage her to call me mommy, she quickly learned from her peers, to reach up her arms for me and call me mama. Susie loves to be read to, loves “Dora the Explorer”, and bubble baths. She is smart, perceptive and talkative. Susie could easily be that little girl I have always wanted as my own. But she doesn’t belong to me or my white culture. She comes from her own rich heritage, of which she must do her part to revitalize and pass-on.

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed 40 years ago by congress as a measure to attempt to stem the tide of a disproportionate number of American Indian/Alaskan Native children entering state foster care systems and being adopted by white families; these children would forever be lost to their families, Tribes, communities, and culture. Today, both nationally and in Alaska, racial disproportionality continues to exist at alarmingly high rates. In 2016, while comprising less than 20% of the population, Alaskan Native children comprise over 55% of the children in foster care in Alaska.

While it is easy to place blame on the child welfare system for the years it has taken to implement ICWA as it was intended; data shows widespread disparities of Alaska Native/American Indian people involved in all service sectors of society.  In order to follow the vision Alaska Native culture keeps Alaska Native children safe, there remains a need to balance both a recognition of the impact of historical trauma as well as the strengths of families we serve. Many professionals who have the responsibility to help vulnerable families may have unconscious bias about Alaska Native culture. These professionals are in positions to make life changing decisions for the family. Yet, without thoughtful and continuous self-evaluation, it is human nature to fall into systemic racism and follow the practice of favoring white, non-relatives over Alaskan Native relatives.

The ferry takes us to her island village, to her mother’s family, where she will be permanently placed with her maternal uncle and his family; a home, where she fits and belongs. Her hair and skin color matches theirs. She will be cuddled, loved and called “baby.” Their home is different than mine. It smells different, and is smaller, more crowded. Instead of having her own bedroom, as she did at my house, Susie will share a room with her brother who sometimes lives in the house and her teen-aged cousin. There is a chest freezer in the living room. Susie is terrified. She clings to me and won’t let go.  

Not too long ago, I feel confident that the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) would have let me keep Susie forever. The caseworker and I could have come up with many different “reasons” for why Susie should be adopted by me; and the white judge, white attorneys and white guardian ad litems, who make such decisions, would have nodded and agreed. Times have changed. And this is a good thing. Having been a social worker first, and a foster parent second, my head has known this long before my heart; but my heart is getting there. The spirit and intent of ICWA maybe, just maybe, are beginning to be embraced.

The privilege of working in the field of child welfare is having the honor of being a part of a family’s path to healing. In the example above Susie is in a home where she is learning how to live in her Alaska Native culture and it will be one less battle she will have as she grows up, a child from a traumatic beginning, as she pieces together her identity.

A year later I go back to her village and visit Susie. She is happy and thriving. She is now three years old and doesn’t remember me at all. Somewhere deep in her mind, seeing me may trigger a vague sense of familiarity – a sense of knowing she was well cared for, nurtured on her journey to get back to her family’s people. And that is truly what matters – that I was a vehicle to help her return, intact, healthy and able to rejoin her people. My heart truly believes this.  

Find the full “Transforming Child Welfare Outcomes for Alaska Native Children Strategic Plan 2016-2020” report on the OCS website at http://dhss.alaska.gov/ocs/Documents/Publications/pdf/AK-Transforming-Child-Welfare-Outcomes_StrategicPlan.pdf.

About the authors:

Mary Johnson is the Child Protection Program Manager with the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks.

Natalie Norberg is currently employed by the State of Alaska, Department of Health and Social Services; she is a former OCS case worker and foster parent.