Unmarried African American parents transitioning to new parenthood reported better coparenting and relationship dynamics as well as more emotionally healthy babies more than a year after participating in a community-based program, according to a new study led by the University of South Florida’s Family Study Center.
The results were published in the December 2022 issue of the Infant Mental Health Journal and detail the adaptation of infant children, their mothers and their fathers, or coparents, one year after the adults took part in a six-session program called “Figuring It Out for the Child” (FIOC).
The FIOC program, conceived of and delivered in an ongoing partnership with the local African American community of St. Petersburg, involved 138 sets of unmarried fathers and mothers expecting their first child together. All of the coparents were offered resource and referral (R&R) supports to connect them to already-existing area services for expectant and new parents. In addition, 68 of the fathers and mothers were randomly chosen to take part in a six-session prenatal FIOC intervention.
During the FIOC sessions, fathers and mothers met weekly with an African American male-female community mentor pair. Together, they discussed hopes and aspirations, as well as potential challenges they anticipated as they looked to build a strong coparenting alliance to support their baby’s development. Mentors provided guidance as parents acquired and practiced useful communication and problem-solving skills and established shared goals for their baby.
Parents from both groups came back three months after childbirth to answer the same interview questions they had completed prior to receiving program services, and additional new questions about how they had been adjusting since the baby’s birth. At 12 months, they again answered these sets of questions, and completed an Infant-Toddler Social Emotional Assessment asking them to describe their baby’s development and adjustment.
Analyses from the study revealed that the coparents who had received the prenatal FIOC intervention reported better communication and respect in their coparenting relationship three months and one year after giving birth than did parents who had not received the intervention. Intervention group parents also described greater reductions in psychological aggression such as shouting and insults in their relationships.
Parents who received the intervention reported healthier adjustments by their babies at the time of the child’s one-year birthday. Both fathers and mothers from the FIOC intervention group portrayed their babies as easier to soothe, more able to wait and less irritable or grouchy. Mothers in particular described their children as displaying less aggressiveness, with fewer tantrums and less biting and hitting.
While numerous prior studies have demonstrated benefits of prenatal interventions serving married and co-residential two-parent families, findings from this study break important new ground by demonstrating positive long-term benefits for coparents who were not married and, in many cases, not living together.
“The intervention’s success and impact is owed to the guidance, subject matter expertise and close collaboration with the community the program served,” said James McHale, director of the Family Study Center.
A panel of African American civic, faith and community leaders co-designed and customized curricular content to reflect the everyday life situations and lived experiences of residents of the neighborhoods they served. Throughout the program, family recruitment and program implementation were guided and supervised by dozens of engaged staff, mentors and community partners including collaborators from The 2020 Plan, the Next STEPP Pregnancy Center, the Federal Healthy Start Project at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church and Human Services, Pinellas County Health Department’s maternal and child home visiting programs, and many others.