Newborns don’t come with instructional manuals, but a local program is providing something just as useful: a personal coach to help guide parents through the first five years of their baby’s life.

Whether families need help understanding their child’s growth and development milestones, referrals to community resources like physicians or day cares, or tips on healthy ways to deal with everyday stress, Children’s Home Society’s Healthy Families program can help.

The Healthy Families program works with families who are expecting a new baby or who have a baby younger than three months old, with a specific focus on parents who might need a little extra support.

“It’s not just a program where we come in for a few weeks after you’ve had a baby, and then we’re done and we think you should know everything,” said Lindsey Cannon, CHS regional executive director. “We serve the family until the child is 5 years — building a lot of those fundamental early-childhood routines with families … helping them to understand the milestones their children are going to go through and working with parents themselves.”

The Healthy Families program is completely free and voluntary, and Cannon said it is traditionally offered to expectant mothers when they get a prenatal risk screening at their doctor’s office.

Once a family enters the program, they will be paired with a family support worker who will conduct regular home visits to provide education, referrals and answers to parents based specifically on what the family needs.

“We don’t want to come in and teach a mother of three about feeding her new child when she may already know about all of that,” Cannon said. “But what she may not know is, ‘How do I handle misbehavior?’ Maybe the father’s not there anymore, and I have three kids to support, and one’s an infant. So, she may not know, ‘How do I balance this and my work life?'”

The Healthy Families program focuses primarily on families where a new baby may statistically be at greater risk of health or developmental issues. “At-risk” families can run the gamut from households where the mother is uncommonly young or old, to homes where there is a history of abuse or domestic violence, to homes where a single parent is just struggling to make ends meet.

“I don’t think anyone wakes up and says, ‘I’m going to be an awful parent today,'” Cannon said, ” … but most of these parents have some serious stressors in their lives, and sometimes it unfolds that way. They could be in a variety of situations just by the nature of our world, and sometimes it does put them at risk for frustration and their children not have a safe place to live.”

Healthy Families support workers receive extensive training before starting the program, as well as ongoing training and education throughout their career. According to CHS, the program has helped more than 300 local families in Santa Rosa and Walton counties. The program is set to roll out in Okaloosa County in this summer.

Cannon noted that the program is completely free and voluntary, and families can exit anytime if they wish. But she added that support workers aren’t there to judge families or add to their problems.

“It’s someone that’s there and their job is to be impartial and to help you solve problems and to be your advocate,” she said.

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