Help for families in bonding with young children

Published 08 July 2012

The University of New England’s Professor of Early Childhood, Margaret Sims, is pioneering a new approach to helping family members form loving relationships with their very young children.

“There’s a lot of evidence now that shows the experiences children have in their first few years have life-long impacts,” Professor Sims said. “Early experiences impact on life-long health, mental health, wellbeing, behaviour and achievement, and poor experiences are associated with life-long disadvantage – including reduced life expectancy.

“One of the key factors that contribute to positive early experiences is the relationships children develop with the adults who care for them. In many families these adults are the child’s mother and father, but research is showing that infants and toddlers who can also develop loving relationships with other adults – such as grandparents, aunts and uncles – are better protected against poor outcomes. It’s often assumed that all that’s necessary is for a mother to have a good relationship with her young children, but we now know it’s not enough.”

“Developing these loving relationships is not always easy,” she said, “and for many people the necessary skills are not instinctive. It’s not uncommon for adults to feel uncomfortable around babies, and awkward in interacting with babies and toddlers. However, it is possible to learn the skills needed to feel comfortable with young children, and to build the loving relationships they need to flourish.”

Professor Sims has been working for many years with families (parents and grandparents) and very young children. She has developed a simple online program designed to help family members build loving relationships with infants and toddlers. “My aim is to make this program widely available,” she said. “However, before I can do so it’s necessary to demonstrate that the program works. That requires a scientific evaluation that includes participants’ opinions and experiences in the program alongside biological measures of relationships. We are only just beginning to understand the biology that underpins relationships, so using these measures in the project is challenging. But it’s also very exciting, as we are the first in the world to use them in this way.”

She explained that the “biological measures” were readings – derived simply from a saliva sample – of hormone levels that indicate the strength of loving relationships.

To help in the initial exploration of the program and the biological measures that she believes can be used to demonstrate its effectiveness, Professor Sims is seeking volunteer families who have a toddler around 18 months old (or a little younger) and who have regular access to the Internet. Family participants will be mother, father and one other adult (a grandparent, another relative, or a friend) who is willing to visit the family home for at least 30 minutes every month to spend time with the child.  The families (mother, father, the other adult and the child) will be visited at home by the research team for the initial collection of data. Then they will be offered the program via the Internet. Six to twelve months later the research team will visit again and collect additional data.

People interested in being involved in the project can contact Professor Sims at for more information.