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First five years of life are critical for healthy brain development

For La’Tasha Lee, MS, DT, CDS, Fridays mean newborn visits in the Ambulatory Clinic at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn. This is the first visit to the pediatrician’s office for these day-old babies, but La’Tasha has decades of experience and wisdom to offer their new parents.

La’Tasha is a Healthy Steps Specialist. Her role is to share developmental milestones and expectations based on the child’s age, and answer questions about specific topics, from feeding to developmental concerns to discipline. During newborn visits, La’Tasha wants to see how everyone is doing since coming home from the hospital. This includes screening for postpartum depression; asking questions about home life and the family dynamic; and observing infant development and parent-child interaction. La’Tasha provides breastfeeding support and offers a variety tips, strategies and resources for mom and baby.

La’Tasha walks into the first room on the morning with a big smile on her face and introduces herself to the new parents. While getting to know mom and dad, La’Tasha asks if she can hold the baby, who was born two months premature and was recently released from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). She shows the parents tricks to help calm the baby down, including swaddling and making a shushing noise as loud as the baby is crying to emulate the sound of the womb. The little girl immediately settles.

“The first five years of life are critical for healthy brain development, secure attachment between parent and child, and future learning,” says La’Tasha. “Advocate’s Healthy Steps program offers resources and training to help kids reach their greatest potential in all the ways they grow and develop. With an emphasis on close relationships between health care professionals and parents we help address the physical, social-emotional, and intellectual development of children.”

Advocate’s program first launched as a local implementation project of a national initiative: Healthy Steps for Young Children (Healthy Steps™). Advocate has since integrated it into residency programs and campus operations and relies on philanthropy and grants to sustain the program.

During another visit, La’Tasha meets with a teen mom and the baby’s grandmother, who only speaks Spanish. Using a remote-video interpreter, La’Tasha educates the family on how often and how long to breastfeed the newborn—offering tips like: When the baby is hungry, his fists will be closed, but as he gets full, his hands will start to unclench.

Healthy Steps Specialists conduct an ongoing system of checkups as part of a health visit, as a separately scheduled office visit, or as part of a home visit that look at both child development and family factors that effect children such as family history of domestic violence or trauma and maternal depression. They help address the physical, emotional, and intellectual growth and development of children and common behavioral concerns related to early learning, fussiness, sleep, feeding, discipline, toilet training, and more. Then they provide referrals and follow-up, as appropriate, to help families make connections within the community.

La’Tasha continues to see families throughout the day. And no matter the situation, La’Tasha also offers families a home visit and provides her cell phone number with encouragement to call or text anytime.

“I want the families to be successful, so any help I can offer is important,” explains La’Tasha. “Healthy Steps offers mothers and fathers the added expertise, time and personal support to help their child’s healthy growth and development.”