Though not every child gets the same chance at a strong start in life, UC Merced
Jan Wallanderbelieves every effort should be made to ensure children have the tools necessary to be the best they can be.
Wallander is a part of a collaborative effort to train mothers in developing countries to interact with babies born not breathing. Labeled “asphyxiated at birth,” these infants are at risk of a variety of developmental disorders such as brain damage, intellectual disability, cerebral palsy and neurological defects.
“Most of these infants will grow up just fine, but others will not,” Wallander said. “The goal of our initiative is to increase the numbers of those who develop normally.”
Wallander and his colleagues believe the key to doing that is regular interaction with the infants. Referred to as early developmental stimulation intervention, the therapy they use might seem like fun and games to the untrained. Though activities like playing peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek may seem like silly diversions, researchers have found they can improve a child’s motor and cognitive skills when done consistently in a way that matches the child’s development.
A team of researchers is putting this theory to the test by conducting National Institute of Health studies in Pakistan, Zambia and India. Wallander visited India last spring to train heath workers who visit villages and teach parents of asphyxiated infants how to effectively interact with their children. The children are then evaluated annually to gauge their developmental progress.
“This type of intervention has proven successful in developed countries,” he said. “But this is the first large-scale evaluation to take place in developing countries.”
Such ground-breaking research is very personal to Wallander, who is honest about his interest in making a positive difference in the world. He came to UC Merced, he said, to be part of something new. During his tenure here, he’s served on a handful of boards and committees that affect the direction of the campus and its academic planning.
Though Wallander found India challenging as a tourist – about half the size of the continental United States, it houses about 1.2 billion people – visiting the country gave him important perspective on the how study subjects live and interact. He looks forward to getting the same valuable insight when he visits Zambia in March to meet with fellow researchers.
“It’s helpful to see the environment participants live in and to talk with research staff about their experiences in the field,” he said. “The families truly enjoy interacting with their babies, and other villagers have volunteered to participate as well,” he said. “There”s been a grassroots disbursement of what we’re teaching.”