When 19-year-old Rosa went into labor three months early, she had to be taken 60 miles to the nearest hospital, according to a 2013 video interview with the organization Save the Children. Her baby, Sirena, was born premature and needed immediate and constant medical attention. Days after giving birth, Rosa was discharged to the home she shared with seven other family members in her small, economically challenged California community. Sirena stayed in the hospital’s intensive care unit to continue receiving treatment, miles away from her mother.
Even in the best circumstances, parents’ joy at greeting a new baby is tempered by stress and worry during a child’s first months. But mothers like Rosa face many additional stressors, including preterm birth, inadequate housing, economic uncertainty, and being young themselves. Fortunately, Rosa did not have to navigate these challenges alone. Diana, a dedicated home visitor—someone specially trained to provide support to new or expectant parents—immediately arranged Rosa’s transportation to and from the hospital to visit Sirena. This helped Rosa and her daughter bond during a crucial period and soothed Rosa’s heartache over their separation. Once Sirena was healthy enough to go home with her mother, Diana continued to visit them regularly, bringing books and educational tools to help Rosa support her baby’s development.1
Home visitors like Diana are support professionals, such as nurses or social workers, who are well-versed in child development, parenting, and family functioning. Local agencies—such as tribal organizations and departments of health, human services, or education—match home visitors with new or expectant parents interested in receiving services.2Home visiting is a voluntary, home-based service-delivery strategy that provides services to parents and children that help the whole family.3 Parents often learn about home visiting through their children’s pediatricians, social workers, and other support professionals. Although home visiting can benefit any family, it can be especially helpful for families who need additional support during stressful periods of economic insecurity or health concerns. Decades of research prove that home visiting can promote healthy child development and academic success, improve health outcomes, and support families’ economic security in both the short and long terms.4
This issue brief explores how home visiting programs—specifically, evidence-based programs funded by the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program—address three key maternal risk factors that directly influence maternal and child health and disproportionately affect mothers who participate in home visiting: postpartum depression, domestic violence, and tobacco use. Each of these risk factors negatively affects a mother’s physical and emotional health, which in turn can produce worse outcomes for children, including low birth weight, prematurity, and even death. Although families face many more challenges, these health indicators highlight the diverse ways home visiting can benefit mothers and children. The brief also demonstrates how home visiting programs contribute to women’s economic security and, therefore, to the economy as a whole. Finally, it examines continued challenges to funding these programs, as well as potential solutions.