National Children’s Study
No one really knows exactly what genetic and environmental factors contribute to such childhood problems as asthma, autism, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and birth defects. Are these diseases related to influences in utero? How about factors even before pregnancy? And what role do other environmental conditions play as a child grows, including the presence of a father?
In 2000, the U.S. government passed the Children’s Health Act to try to learn as much as possible about the health of the country’s children through the National Children’s Study (NCS). This landmark investigation will follow 100,000 children from before birth to age 21 to find out what keeps them healthy and what makes them sick. SPH was awarded nearly $14 million over five years for its part in gathering research for the study. SPH professors Pat McGovern and Wendy Hellerstedt and many other investigators, will follow 1,000 Ramsey County children.
Families in the national study may be increasingly non-traditional in their relationships. Nearly 4 of every 10 U.S. births now occur to unmarried women and not much is known yet about the presence and influence of unmarried fathers before, during, and after pregnancy.
That type of information is important to this study because when fathers are involved with their children and their children’s mother in a positive way, everyone benefits. Paternal involvement is associated with increased prenatal care, decreased levels of maternal drug and alcohol abuse, and decreased levels of preterm birth and low birth weight. Reports also show that fathering increases a man’s overall life satisfaction and self-esteem while inhibiting stress.
Understanding more about the role of fathers
When the SPH team begins recruiting families for the study, it wants to understand more about fathers, especially their thoughts around becoming a parent. Fortunately, it has first semester MPH student Clarence Jones to help out.
Currently community outreach director for Southside Community Health Services/Q Health Connections, Jones has been focusing on non-custodial fathers and their families for more than 25 years and is co-author of the book,Black Fathers: An Invisible Presence in America.
“No one has really explored what young men think about before conceiving a child,” says Jones. “If you ask them, they usually answer, ‘Nothing.’ But if you can pose the right questions, perhaps they may start to get more reflective and make better choices.”
Jones recently gave a talk on this subject as part of the National Children’s Study Speakers’ Series. This series is a way to introduce the study and the investigators to the community in advance of the recruitment phase. The talks have been popular, drawing 80-100 community members each time.
To Jones, the subject of what males think, or don’t think, prior to conception is fascinating. “If we can understand that better, we can really explore, holistically, maternal and child health.”