How we experience stress as infants can impact our entire lives—making it difficult to interpret the world, engage in healthy relationships, and avoid problems later in life.
Enter Dr. Nicole Letourneau, a nurse researcher and professor at the University of Calgary. She has made it her life’s work to study and promote parent-infant mental health in the face of toxic stressors like depression, addiction, domestic violence, and poverty.
“Healthy child development is a social determinant of health,” notes Dr. Letourneau.
“We also know that supportive nurturing can reverse the negative impact of toxic stressors on a child – it’s deceptively simple but essential for children to have consistent, supportive relationships with parents. As nurses, we should not waste opportunities to help parents be the best they can be.”
A self-described “serial innovator” she is currently leading several research programs, including:
VID-KIDS (Video Feedback Interaction Guidance for Depressed Mothers and Their Infants) which supports depressed mothers and their infants by providing nurse-led video feedback to improve mother-child interactions. Pilot research has been successful, and Dr. Letourneau is now working with Alberta Health Services (Calgary Public Health) to further test the program. Ideally, VID-KIDS will be commercialized for widespread implementation with program partners at the Barnard Center and Parent-Child Relationships Program at the University of Washington, Seattle.
ATTACH™ (Attachment and Child Health) in which facilitators are trained to help parents reflect on their own and their children’s thoughts, feelings, and mental states (e.g., emotions). This program helps parents to be more sensitive and appropriately responsive to their children’s needs and underpins the development of secure attachments with their children. Pilot data show the program works to improve parental reflective function, child development and attachment security, as well as parent-child relationships. Currently ATTACH™ is being scaled for national and online delivery with partners across Canada.
APrON (Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition) which is an Alberta pregnancy cohort of 2,200 mother-child pairs and 1,200 fathers. Funding has allowed families to be followed since early pregnancy until their children are 12 years of age, with data from many points in between. APrON focuses on understanding how parental adversity, such as mental health problems impacts child health and development. Dr. Letourneau leads a team of scientists who have produced more than 90 papers to date from APrON data.
Making an impact is what motivates Dr. Letourneau’s work. “For me, nurses want to make an impact – practical and pragmatic – they want to see patients, parents and children, get better as result of their work.”
Dr. Letourneau approaches her research with three objectives:
1) Gain an understanding of how stress and early childhood experiences impact development and health over the lifespan.
2) Design interventions to promote healthy parent-child relationships and child development.
3) Share information through social and traditional media, academic publications, and published books.
Dr. Letourneau will be inducted into the American Academy of Nursing in October 2020 and is this year’s recipient of the Canadian Nurses Association Jeanne Mance Award—the highest nursing honour attainable in Canada. She is a past recipient of funding from the Alberta Registered Nurses Education Trust. That funding helped her complete her MN and PhD programs. Today, she takes pride in helping her many students attain funding for the research they do, noting that ARNET funding “made a big difference in my life.”