Children’s good health: Not just for olympic hopefuls
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In her hometown of Rio de Janeiro, Olympian Rafaela Silva, 26, was Brazil’s first gold medal this year. The winner in women’s judo, Silva was raised in poverty in one of the city’s infamous favelas. 

Olympian Mavis Chirandu, now 21, was years ago abandoned by the side of the road as an infant and grew up in an SOS Children's Village. She is today representing the nation of Zimbabwe as a member of the women’s soccer team at the 2016 Olympics. 

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These are just two stories from the 11,551 Olympic athletes (the refugee team has many more) from across the globe showcasing their talents at Rio 2016. Those athletes include the media-celebrated USA’s Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez, Katie Ledecky and Michelle Carter, each who have trained to get where they are.  

Certainly many of them were lucky enough to have a good start on health, beginning in their earliest years. Many others, like Silva or Chirandu, were not. 

According to the American Heart Association in a new report in Circulation, most American children do notmeet the seven standards of good heart health, including physical activity and healthy diets.

There is a disconnect between the messaging and the practicality of the overall health of American children, especially poor children. This disparity in early health deserves our attention as it lays the foundation for healthy development throughout their lives.  

In this country, an advertising campaign for milk makes this case explicitly, proclaiming "Nine Out Of 10 U.S. Olympians Say They Drank Milk Growing Up." Good nutrition, healthy habits, safe environments, regular checkups; all of these are essential building blocks for children’s healthy growth. 

Yet those mandates are born of privilege. In the U.S., we imagine parents, pediatricians, dentists, all of whom play a critical role in ensuring children’s well-being, as supporting a child’s healthy future. This support system is not a given.

There are 20.4 million children under the age of 5 in the United States. Almost one quarter, or 23 percent of these children live in poverty.

In the equation of children’s health, we often overlook child care providers. These early teachers, who often spend eight hours a day or more with children, are essential to giving children a healthy start.

More than 12.5 million children under the age of 5—over 60 percent of all children in the United States—are in regular child care arrangements. Among those children,  5.7 million attend formal child care programs, such as centers, school-based programs, or licensed family child care.

Child care providers can support children’s health in many ways. They can offer free, nutritious meals to children through the Child and Adult Care Food Program; help children learn healthy habits; give them opportunities to exercise; and support them in developing consistent routines.

Early childhood educators are often the first identifiers of children’s health challenges and developmental delays. And comprehensive child care programs, such as Head Start and Early Head Start, connect families with essential health services that can make all the difference to children’s wellbeing.

In the Early Head Start program that I run in Connecticut, we recently noticed something was wrong with a two-year-old boy who was attending the program. He cried most of the day. He didn’t want to play or eat, and he barely spoke. He was very small for his age, and his language seemed to be delayed. We thought he must be missing his mother.

By the end of the first month, we arranged for the child to see a dentist, who discovered his baby teeth were so badly decayed that he was on the verge of septic shock. Once the dentist operated on his teeth, this little boy began acting completely differently. 

He soon engaged with the teacher and the other children. Over the next several weeks, he started using more words, and his language skills improved. He began eating, and as a result he started growing. And he stopped crying. All this time, he’d been trying, without success, to tell his parents, and then us, that he was in pain—but he hadn’t had the words.

Unfortunately, barriers prevent many children from accessing the health services that can make all the difference early on in their lives. 

Early childhood educators are severely underpaid, work long hours and often have their hands full caring for many children. And while they provide important insights into children’s wellbeing and development, they arenot trained medical professionals.

Health consultants who visit child care programs on a regular basis can play an important role in ensuring that child care programs are safe and healthy, and that children are getting appropriate preventative care and treatment. But funding for health consultation is extremely limited

Comprehensive child care programs such as Head Start provide a full array of health resources for children and families. Yet in the 2014-2015 school year, only 41 percent of three- and four-year-olds in poverty and 4 percent of children under three had access to Head Start and Early Head Start programs. 

Still, there are other strategies possible to help more children and to ensure the health of most all children in this country. 

Universities and community colleges could incorporate child care rotations as part of the required training for students working towards careers as health care providers — doctors, nurses, physician assistants. 

These students already spend time learning on the job. By devoting a few months to working in child care programs, they will gain valuable insights into the essential role that child care plays in children’s development. They will be performing a much-needed community service. 

Whether or not a child ever achieves Olympic status as an athlete, providing access to health is a win for all of us. 

Jessica Sager, Esq., is the founder and executive director of All Our Kin, Inc., and a lecturer at Yale University. She is a Pahara Aspen Fellow and a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.