How framing can help to reinforce the value of prenatal development in a child’s life
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How framing can help to reinforce the value of prenatal development in a child’s life

by Nat Kendall-Taylor, FrameWorks Institute and Donna Cross, Telethon Kids Institute

June 02, 2021

For the past two years, the FrameWorks Institute has worked in partnership with Telethon Kids Institute and Minderoo Foundation to investigate perceptions of early childhood in Australia, identifying gaps in public thinking, and areas where the stories told by the science of early childhood diverge. The Institute has developed and tested new ways of talking about early childhood that make this science more accessible.


This work has been designed to create better alignment between what we know about early childhood and what we do to support young children and their families. This piece, the fourth in a series of five, explains the importance of pre-natal development in the life of a child, and shares messages about how this may be communicated more broadly. 


Early matters” is the early childhood sector’s refrain, with good reason. The science is clear that experiences in early childhood influence long-term health, learning and social outcomes. Supporting children and families during the first years of life creates a foundation for health and wellness. 


This message has shifted public thinking and pushed policy makers to invest in early childhood. But what does ‘early’ mean, exactly? 


When most policy makers and members of the public hear ‘early childhood development,’ they think of the first years after birth. But the science shows that critical development happens before birth, in the prenatal period, and that supporting this period of development has the potential to improve a wide range of long-term outcomes. 


Moving this science into the public conversation isn’t easy. Our research shows that Australians have a set of shared understandings about development and the prenatal period that make it hard to understand this science and get them to get behind the kinds of policies we need.   


Chief among these shared understandings is the idea of individualism, the assumption that the outcomes people experience are the exclusive result of individual choices, drive, and strength of will. Thinking in this way, contextual factors — like racism, environmental toxins, poor housing conditions, or lack of educational opportunities, are irrelevant because what really matters are the choices that individuals make. 


When we think about pregnancy, individualism leads people to see a woman’s choices — typically the choice not to drink or use drugs — as the sole determinants of a successful pregnancy. This makes it difficult for people to think about the role of the social environment in shaping prenatal development. 


If the public understands prenatal development as the product of decision-making, then only solutions that influence a woman’s decisions are appropriate or effective. These solutions include educational interventions (providing women with more information about the right and wrong decisions to make) and punitive actions (steep penalties for consuming alcohol for example) that people think discourage negative choices and shape behaviour. This leaves many of the solutions that science shows to be effective — those that focus on addressing social determinants — off the public’s radar. 


There is also a cultural belief among the Australian public that development happens best when it is left alone to run its course — the notion that development happens “naturally”. From this view, science and medicine are seen as part of the problem as they represent incursions into a natural process. This dampens support for efforts beyond educating mothers or controlling their access to alcohol and other substances. It also obscures opportunities to support positive development, focusing attention on factors that negatively impact development. 


Our research has found that the way messages about prenatal development are framed has the potential to expand demand for the actions necessary to better support this critical period of development. Framing refers to the way choices in how information is presented — big and small — influence how people think, feel and act. 


We have found that using values is powerful in framing prenatal development. Specifically, evoking the idea of fairness — that every child should have a chance to be healthy and well and that having policies that support prenatal development is a part of having a fair and just society — helps people to see the importance of prenatal development.  


This appeal to fairness and public responsibility is a part of counteracting individualism and the narrow sense of maternal responsibility that dominates current thinking about pregnancy. We have also found that making prenatal development a health issue increases the issue’s importance and people’s sense of public responsibility. If positive prenatal development is explained as being instrumental in the future health of Australians, people see the issue as a high priority and are willing to invest public resources in supporting it. 


It is also important for communicators to always explain the prenatal period as a part of child development. Messages that make it clear that supporting pregnant women leads to positive development and establishes a foundation for health and wellness for life resonates and channels thinking in productive directions. These messages counteract the sense that development is a natural process that is best left alone by making it clear that supports are required and create positive outcomes. 


It is also important to assert a strong sense of public/social responsibility for supporting prenatal development. This sense of social responsibility counteracts the individualism that leads people to hold pregnant women narrowly responsible for this critical phase of child development. 


Finally, communicating solutions is critical. People have a difficult job imagining what, other than making sure they aren’t drinking or using drugs, can be done to support pregnant women and prenatal development. It is essential that our messages carry concrete solutions that show which actions are necessary and how they lead to better outcomes. 


The way in which messages about the value of prenatal development are shared can not only reinforce the message that ‘early matters’, they also help people to get and stand behind solutions that support this period of development. 


Want to learn more? Be a part of the new framing story by joining in our free e-learning module.


More information about the Core Story for Early Childhood Development and Learning can be found here.

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