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Davis, California

Sunday, April 14, 2024

California Babies Project works to better understand lives of Mexican families in Yolo County

Human development research focused on often overlooked communities 

In California, Hispanics have surpassed whites as the largest ethnic group in the state. Although it is often thought that this increase is due to immigration, it is actually caused by individuals already living in the state and building families. 

Hispanics increasingly choose to raise families in the U.S., yet little research has gone into understanding their family dynamics and childhood development. Instead, research in human development has historically been focused on white Americans of European descent, resulting in a lack of representative knowledge. Leah Hibel, an associate professor of human development and family studies, is striving to bridge this racial gap in scientific research and learn more about the lives of Hispanics in the U.S.

The California Babies Project began in 2017 with the intention of learning how stress factors impact childhood development in Mexican families in the Yolo County area. The project selected families that had already been studied through the California Families Project, a childhood development study that started at UC Davis in 2006. 

The children that are part of the ongoing California Babies Project are the descendants of those who participated in the 2006 California Families Project as children. Hibel’s study hopes to better understand the daily lives of the families through understanding the main stressors they are facing and the resilience mechanisms they rely on to combat challenges.

“The main goals of the project are to understand daily life as it’s lived, how parents are supporting their infants’ development and their infants’ ability to regulate their physiology, emotions and sleep” said Andrea C. Bühler-Wassman, a doctoral candidate in human development. 

To collect data on the families and children, the study started with children at six months old and plans to follow them until they reach the age of four. A key part of data collection relies on the diaries that the families use to document the many fluctuations in daily life during two-week periods.

“What is unique about this project is that we have the families filling out questionnaires each day, so we can see how life is lived each day and how each day is impactful,” Hibel said.

Beyond the daily diaries, a quantifiable aspect of the study is the recording of the stress hormone cortisol. To measure cortisol, saliva is collected from both the parents and the children. This physiological measure serves as an objective view of the parents’ stress levels and as an indicator for the way in which the parents’ stress is impacting their children. Additionally, sleep patterns are recorded to understand how differing amounts of sleep impact the health of the family members.

Although the study is still primarily in the data collection phase, early analysis has already identified stress factors and resilience methods among the families. Correlations can be found between partner hostility and the amount of sleep mothers receive each night. For mothers sleeping the recommended seven to eight hours a night, less partner conflicts are observed. These are experiences to which many families in the U.S. can relate; however, a specific stressor for the families in this study is the fear of deportation. 

The study has seen a significant difference in the depression symptoms for mothers who are worried about deportation compared to mothers with less concerns about deportation. Bühler-Wassman pointed out that it is not just undocumented mothers who are negatively impacted by the fear of deportation. Regardless of citizenship status, these mothers still have fears surrounding deportation — from concerns about other family members to racist assumptions that they might be undocumented — which may result in symptoms of depression. 

In the face of these stress factors, the families have shown strong resilience through familial support. The importance of family and the support members receive from one another helps them fight the challenges they face in the U.S. 

“We are currently studying how social support affects the families’ mental health, because when families are living in these stressful environments, the main thing that buffers that stress is familial support,” Bühler-Wassman said.

The researchers hope that more evidence-based research on Mexican families in the U.S. will ultimately lead to positive changes and more enjoyable lives for the families they study.

“I really want to make this research be reflective of the needs of the community and I hope that this research will be able to help them and give back to them,” Bühler-Wassman said. 

To help the families, policy and social services need to be catered to their specific needs. It is important for the societal support to be inclusive of all family types. This research will help policy-makers come up with specific solutions that will be most beneficial to the families they hope to serve. 

“It’s important to meet families where they are at and be able to provide families with prevention and intervention,” Hibel said. “We need to make sure those interventions are culturally appropriate and need them to be able to fit into their day to day lives.”

Although there has been widespread objection to policies that are negatively impacting immigrants and their families, Jonathan Mulligan Sepúlveda, a staff attorney for the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic, emphasized that such policies have been this way for years.

“There does seem to be significant push back that is saying this is extremely inhumane policy, yet it seems like policy has been this way for a long time,” Mulligan Sepúlveda said.

Hibel stressed that it is ultimately a societal limitation to not support all the diverse aspects and people of the U.S.

“What is important to recognize is that our country is diverse and our communities are diverse, and that diversity is an asset,” Hibel said. “If we are not supporting and acknowledging aspects of our society, it holds our society back.”

Written by: Alma Meckler-Pacheco — science@theaggie.org


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