Baby Brain Development Program


The Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (SIU SOM) Baby Brain Development Program will train family specialists in southern Illinois to build appropriate skills in parents to maximize the developmental outcomes of their children.


The Illinois Delta Region comprises the 16 southernmost counties in the state of Illinois. 14 of the 16 counties in this region are designated as rural, and its total population is 344,594. The 2014 County Health Rankings and Roadmap Report identified 15 of 16 counties as ranking in the lower 50% of Illinois counties for health outcomes, and 11 of 16 counties in the worst 25% of Illinois counties for children in poverty. Overall, this region has historically endured isolated households, low income and low educational levels, high rates of poverty, chronic disease, illness and mortality, and large numbers of medically underserved residents.

The early life experiences of a child have tremendous effects on their physical and mental development. The human brain grows rapidly from birth to three. 80% of brain volume is formed in these critical years with 700-1000 neuronal connections forming every second. The brain’s plasticity during this time makes young children uniquely responsive to environmental stimuli. However, a young child’s environment differs dramatically across race and class lines. Children born in higher socioeconomic status families talk more to their children, are more emotionally engaged, use more varied vocabulary, and use less harsh discipline. These behaviors result in low-income students falling 2.5-3 years behind their higher income counterparts by fifth grade with significantly measurable differences seen by 18 months.

However, the most important factor in explaining poorer cognitive performance in low income children is neither parental education nor income. It is parenting style, specifically the “serve and return” practices that engage parents to their children’s developmental needs. Research has shown that these simple practices emphasizing the concepts of tuning in, talking more, and taking turns can drastically improve developmental outcomes for children. The goal of the Baby Brain Development Program is to provide parents the skills for their children to be ready for school and succeed in life.

Program Details

The Baby Brain Development Program has two arms, one in the clinics and one in the community, which hopes to improve baby brain development in locations, organizations, and institutions that mothers of young children routinely visit.

  1. Clinical Program – The clinical program is structured around pediatric well child visits from newborn to three years of age. Children are expected to attend 11-13 pediatric well child visits during this critical team.
    Our team has designed and developed age appropriate developmental gift bags (cost under $5) for children. Each bag introduced to parents and children in the waiting room is meant to encourage play and link that play to baby brain development. During a ten minute session of existing wait time either before or after their visit with the pediatrician, a family specialist will sit with the parents to discuss how these simple activities between parent and child will lead to greater developmental outcomes. Armed with a smart phone application to practice these skills in between visit, we will measure whether our program improved parental engagement in these baby brain development practices and subsequently improved developmental outcomes for the region.
  2. Community Program – The community program will take our developmental gift bags and move them from the clinic to the communities. Bringing them to day care centers, WIC clinics, public health departments, churches, and other community centers, we hope to engage parents in practices that will build their baby’s brains. Our team will measure whether our program improved parent engagement around these “serve and return” parenting skills.


Program Team

SIU SOM and its partner organization, Southern Illinois Coalition for Children and Families, brings a strong and capable team to our efforts in southern Illinois. The team consists of a variety of faculty and staff at the medical school and coalition from a number of different disciplines. Core members of the team include (1) Sameer Vohra, MD, JD, MA, Pediatrician and Director of the Children’s Population Health Program, (2) Jeanne Koehler, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medical Education, (3) Carolyn Pointer, JD, Assistant Professor of Medical Humanities and Policy Director of the Children’s Population Health Program (4) Janet Patterson, MD, Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician, (5) Kim Sanders, MBA, MPH – Director, Center for Rural Health and Social Service Development, and (6) Lori Longueville, Director, Southern Illinois Coalition for Children and Families.

Strategic Priorities

The Baby Brain Development Program will address four strategic priorities. Our goal is that the work will be replicable all across our medical school’s service region of southern Illinois.

  1. Data Acquisition and Analytics – Collecting and analyzing information from parents, community members, and physicians to understand the scope of the developmental challenges in the Delta Region. Our team has already collected large amounts of data to understand the development outcomes of our region.
  2. Improving Child Health and Development – Our family specialists and developmental gift bags are designed to help improve the outcomes in the region by introducing, reinforcing, and building the skills that parents need to maximize their child’s developmental outcomes.
  3. Improving Parent Engagement – Our family specialists and developmental gift bags are designed to improve the manner in which parents engage with their children. The hypothesis is that understanding how important baby brain development is and seeing the results will lead to improved parent engagement.
  4. Policy and Regulation Change – Collaborate with insurance providers and legislators to ensure that these services, when shown to provide great benefits to patients, will be covered by the government and private insurance companies.


Summary of Program

The Southern Illinois University School of Medicine Baby Brain Development Program has the potential to change the landscape of this important community by improving developmental outcomes of children. Children will increase their readiness in school and subsequently have a better chance to succeed in life.