Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. Through stories from my behavioral pediatrics practice (with details changed to protect privacy) I will show how contemporary research in child development can be applied to support parents in their efforts to facilitate their children’s healthy emotional development. I will address factors that converge to obstruct such support. These include limited access to quality mental health care, influences of a powerful health insurance industry and intensive marketing efforts by the pharmaceutical industry.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Preventive mental health care for children falls through the cracks

The current issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has an excellent article, Integrating Mental Health Care Into Pediatric Primary Care Settings, identifying the causes of this problem.
Pediatric training provides limited experience in screening or intervening for mental disorders. In contrast, child psychiatry training emphasizes the treatment of children with established psychiatric diagnoses and typically offers limited experience with children at risk for mental disorders or children whose symptoms do not reach the threshold for diagnosis. 
In other words, the current structure of the health care system does not have room for prevention. Primary care clinicians, who have the main contact with young children and families, do not have adequate education in prevention, and specialists who children are referred to when problems arise only know how to treat identified "disorders." The article further elaborates on the reasons for this situation:
Current financing structures reward treating established diagnoses, not providing preventive services, because payment for visits, with few exceptions, requires a DSM-IV diagnosis.
This problem is currently being addressed in the refinement of the DC: 0-3, a classification of disorders of infancy and early childhood that recognizes the significant role of relationships in problems in this age group. If the DC:0-3 is "cross-walked" with a DSM diagnosis, then reimbursement is possible.  That word "disorder" is still part of the conversation, but it is a step in the right direction.

Another problem intrinsic to the system is that for billing purposes the child is the identified patient, making work with the family challenging.
Research on the treatment of child mental health conditions has strongly indicated the benefit of treating the child and the caregiver as “the patient,” but public and private plans frequently do not pay for family-focused treatment... the need to identify the child as the patient makes family-focused interventions difficult to support financially; likewise, payment for caregiver-only or collateral sessions is lacking.
Another problem identified is the lack of financial support for collaborative care. In my work with families in the Early Childhood Social Emotional Health program at Newton Wellesley Hospital I speak regularly with a child's primary care doctor. This is an essential part of care, as that person often has a longstanding ongoing relationship with the child and family and knows them well. In addition, if I refer a family on to more specialized care, such as with a psychiatrist, it is important that I fill them in on the work I have been doing with the family. Working as a team we can hold the family through a difficult time, and get development going in a healthy direction. I spend a lot of time on the phone because it is good care, and I know that many of my pediatrician and child psychiatry colleagues do the same. Yet none of this care is reimbursed.

The article offers this ray of hope:
The Affordable Care Act (Public Law 111-148) requires mental and behavioral health coverage in an essential benefit package at parity with medical benefits. This could incentivize the integration of care.
Of course for this to happen, President Obama must be reelected.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Yoga for autism, movement for learning

When I listen to parents of young children (under 5) in my behavioral pediatrics practice, they often describe a child who is very overwhelmed by sensory input, inflexible and easily dysregulated. They worry that their child is "on the spectrum." We talk about how their child does not feel calm in his body, and work together to help him find ways to feel calm. With this approach, there can be significant improvement in behavior.

Thus I was pleased, though not surprised, to learn of two studies validating this approach in children who have been diagnosed with autism. One, published in the current issue of the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, demonstrated that a 17 minute yoga program, called "Get Ready to Learn," significantly decreased anxiety, social withdrawal and aggression.

The second, published last year in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine demonstrated significant improvement in core features of autism in a group of children age 3-16 who participated in an 8 week multimodal yoga, dance and music therapy program.

In a related story, this morning on NPR's Only a Game, a program entitled Does Exercise Help Kids Learn? referred to the research of neurologist Majid Fotuhi showing that exercise improves learning efficiency. He stated:
I am also in favor of shorter teaching sessions which are intermittent with 20 minutes of P.E. or some kind of physical activity that’s somewhat structured.
In a previous post I refer to psychiatrist Bruce Perry, whose neurosequential model of therapeutics, primarily applied to work with traumatized children, uses self regulating activities interspersed between both learning and therapy. I conclude:
Often when kids are struggling in school, teachers express concern that they are "over-scheduled." But if extracurricular activities are carefully planned and well thought out, they can be considered an essential part of treatment. It is best to have some kind of a calming activity interspersed with homework, tutoring or therapy. These can be tailored to a child's particular talents and interests.
Whether a child has symptoms associated with autism, has experienced trauma, or is struggling to learn, promoting self-regulation by using the body to help the brain is important. If we can incorporate this approach into treatment and education of young children, we will support healthy development of regulation of emotion, attention and behavior,  perhaps even avoiding the need to label them with a disorder.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

New study asks; what happens to the dysregulated infant?

When I see children in my behavioral pediatrics practice, whether they are 2, 5 or 15 it is very common to hear from parents that as a baby their child "cried all the time" never slept" had "terrible feeding problems" or some variation of this. Therefore I was not surprised by the findings of a large longitudinal study published this week in Pediatrics: Long-term Outcomes of  Infant Behavioral Dysregulation. The researchers in Australia had information about over 5000 babies starting at 6 months, and found that when mother's reported symptoms of "dysregulation" at this age, they were significantly more likely to report of behavior problems at age 5 and age 14. This association was affected by such things as mother's level of education, marital status and presence of anxiety and/or depression. The authors conclude that:
By facilitating early referral to appropriate professionals, such as public health nurses, family therapists, psychologists, and social workers, clinicians may aim to improve not only behavioral out- comes in childhood and adolescence, but also parents’ perceptions of their children and the needs of the parents themselves.
While I am pleased that this conclusion is reached in a prestigious journal, what is lacking in this study, is understanding of how infant dysregulation and later behavior problems are linked, and so in how to treat these problems. Here are three points that speak to this issue.

1) This model places the "dysregulation" squarely in the baby. However, any new mother (I refer to mothers because that is what the study does- see below for thoughts about fathers) will tell you that the baby's behavior has a huge influence on a mother's behavior and emotional wellbeing.  The mother and baby regulate and dysregulate each other. For example, if a baby has difficulty settling to sleep, a parent will likely be severely sleep deprived. This in turn may affect her ability to respond to her baby's cues. If she is struggling with postpartum depression, the sleep deprivation likely will worsen her symptoms. When a mother is herself struggling in this way, it may lead to further symptoms of "dysregulation" in the baby. But conversely, if a baby is dysregulated and the mother gets help,  in the form of such things as a mother-baby group, yoga and/or therapy, and she is able to be calmer, she will be better able to help her baby manage his symptoms of dysregulation. In turn, as her baby becomes more calm, she will feel more competent and better about herself as a parent.

2) Fathers have a critical role to play. A study published last year in Pediatrics showed a significant link between paternal depressive symptoms and later child behavior problems. Again, looking at the positive side of this, when a father's emotional wellbeing is supported, he can be more emotionally available for both his partner (this study does identify stability of partner relationships as well as marital status as an important factor) and his child.

3) Symptoms of dysregulation are usually present before 6 months of age. For example babies born prematurely are very likely to be behaviorally dysregulated. One particularly vulnerable population is what is referred to as the "late preterm." When babies are born at 35-37 weeks, they are often in the regular nursery and parents have an expectation that they are "normal." However, these babies may be difficult to feed, have difficulty settling to sleep as well as increased sensitivity to sensory input. When there is this kind of mismatch between the parent's expectations and experience, significant feelings of inadequacy may emerge. In turn, these feelings, together with sleep deprivation may lead to symptoms of depression in a parent. This is another example of mutual dysregulation.

I was motivated to develop the Early Childhood Social Emotional Health program at Newton Wellesley hospital exactly because of the findings that this study calls attention to. I wanted to help families before their child was 5, 10 or 16 and being diagnosed with ADHD. Recognizing that the roots of these problems are usually present very early, it made sense to  devote resources to helping families of young children.

The risk of this study however, is that "infant dysregulation" becomes the new "ADHD," placing the problem squarely in the child, and failing to recognize that the problem occurs in relationships.   As it stand now, the study adds to the rapidly growing body of literature offering evidence that devoting resources to early childhood is important. But it is only by focusing on interventions that promote healthy relationships, and for vulnerable parent-child pairs starting these interventions at or close to birth, that this research can have a positive and meaningful impact.