Home visiting is an important mechanism for minimizing the lifelong effects of early childhood adversity. To do so, it must be informed by the biology of early brain and child development. Advances in neuroscience, epigenetics, and the physiology of stress are revealing the biological mechanisms underlying well-established associations between early childhood adversity and suboptimal life-course trajectories. Left unchecked, mediators of physiologic stress become toxic, alter both genome and brain, and lead to a vicious cycle of chronic stress. This so-called “toxic stress” results a wide array of behavioral attempts to blunt the stress response, a process known as “behavioral allostasis.” Although behaviors like smoking, overeating, promiscuity, and substance abuse decrease stress transiently, over time they become maladaptive and result in the unhealthy lifestyles and noncommunicable diseases that are the leading causes of morbidity and mortality. The biology of toxic stress and the concept of behavioral allostasis shed new light on the developmental origins of lifelong disease and highlight opportunities for early intervention and prevention. Future efforts to minimize the effects of childhood adversity should focus on expanding the capacity of caregivers and communities to promote (1) the safe, stable, and nurturing relationships that buffer toxic stress, and (2) the rudimentary but foundational social-emotional, language, and cognitive skills needed to develop healthy, adaptive coping skills. Building these critical caregiver and community capacities will require a public health approach with unprecedented levels of collaboration and coordination between the healthcare, childcare, early education, early intervention, and home visiting sectors.
- Accepted August 26, 2013.
- Copyright © 2013 by the American Academy of Pediatrics