COLUMBIA — A baby changes everything: how parents eat, sleep, clean, shop and spend time in general.
Enter Connecting for Baby, an MU extension program that aims to help young couples who are either expecting a baby or have an infant three months or younger to be better parents.
Couples attend 11 monthly dinner sessions, a weekend couples’ retreat, receive materials about healthy relationships and regular gift cards. And it's all free.
“The focus is so that you can create a better family for yourselves,” said participant Lesli Kalleck, 22. Lesli and her husband, Donald Kalleck, 25, were married last week and have attended sessions together since May.
There are some catches, though. Couples need to enroll together, must be in a non-violent relationship, unmarried when they begin the program and meet income guidelines and other qualifications, according to Connecting for Baby.
Once enrolled, couples receive training that focuses on building a lasting relationship. “We were not getting along before we went to this class,” said participant Rebecca Ryan, 30. “We can actually sit down and talk a lot more. We take care of our daughter together. It’s helped us out a lot.”
Donald Kalleck agreed. “We learn different ways to argue. The way you act with each other, the baby sees that. We communicate better.”
Behind the program
Connecting for Baby was designed to give children born into poverty a better chance of success. Its offices are housed in MU Extension's Department of Human Development and Family Studies.
People currently, or previously, on the Connecting for Baby team have written research briefs that can be viewed online. One, titled Children in Poverty, talks about five factors that can negatively affect children:
- poverty-related health problems,
- the home environment,
- parenting practices,
- parents' mental health, and
- living in a poor neighborhood.
Children who grow up in these conditions are more likely to repeat grades, tend to participate in fewer extracurricular activities and are slightly more likely to have developmental delays and learning disabilities.
But lack of money isn't the only culprit, and couples can help their children in other ways. Connecting for Baby teaches "parents basic principles of successful child development,” according to the Children in Poverty brief.
Some of those ideas include what might seem obvious to some people: Children need to be hugged and have plenty of physical contact. They respond positively when parents acknowledge their verbal and nonverbal signals and have consistent care. Infants also need to be encouraged to explore their surroundings.
And the idea that it is important for parents to be confident in their ability to love and care for their child.
The monthly Connecting for Baby dinners address these topics and more. Program director Marnie Morgan said there are positive results. “I see a substantial impact in the couples that we work with,” she said. “It’s exciting to watch couples that are committed to their relationships.”
Parents' excitement about the program is apparent and contagious. “Our couples in general are our biggest recruiters,” Morgan said. “They believe in what we do. I was most surprised at how excited the dads were. Once they come for the first time they are usually transformed into big advocates for us.”
The program is primarily evaluated through a series of interviews. Couples talk about their communication, how they resolve conflict, child care and more in an effort to see what has changed because of the program. The interviews happen before a couple attends sessions, twice during the 12 months and then again after all the sessions are completed.
Morgan said they also “regularly report the number of couples and hours completed. It’s a pretty extensive evaluation of the project.”
Dinner session facilitators are trained through the Connecting for Baby office at MU. They go through a series of observations, training, then shadow and present with other facilitators, Morgan said.
The program is funded by a five-year federal grant from the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. It has operated in mid-Missouri for over three years.
“We haven’t heard yet as to the availability of funding after the five years, so we do not know what to expect,” Morgan said.
The Connecting for Baby team hopes to receive continued funding, and are already planning to expand. The project currently operates in Columbia, Kansas City, Moberly and Saint Robert. For now, couples from Jefferson City commute to Columbia.
“There are facilitators ready there, but not enough couples yet,” Morgan said. Plans are also in the works to start sessions in Lake of the Ozarks, St. Louis and in Lafayette county.
Couples can enroll in the program online or by calling 1-888-542-2230. Childcare is provided if needed.