The scientific effort to protect babies from trauma before it happens

For nearly 30 years, Javier Aceves worked as a pediatrician in Albuquerque, New Mexico, focusing primarily on disadvantaged families. His approach was holistic: along with treating children, he did outreach with teens, and helped children’s parents with everything from addiction to learning how to be a supportive caregiver. For all the programs he helped develop, the patterns he kept seeing haunted him. He could treat young kids’ medical problems, but as they grew up, “we’d lose them to violence,” he says. Kids died all the time, by homicide or suicide.

One child he treated, Juan*, was born to a single mom who was addicted to alcohol. Juan was a smart kid who’d had a tough time: He and his siblings were periodically removed from their mother and shuttled to different relatives, and they lived in near-constant uncertainty and poverty. When Juan’s mother was in charge of her kids, she would sometimes come to Aceves, angrily asking for medication to deal with Juan’s behavior.

Aceves felt strongly that Juan did not need medicine but more consistent, loving care. Infants need love and tenderness in the same way that they need food. Love and attentive interaction—all that singing and talking and cooing—allows neural networks to build and organize in ways that later make children’s brains more receptive to everything from how to solve a math problem, to how to pay attention in class and manage conflict.

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