Let's make our babies a national priority

Let's make our babies a national priority
© Getty Images

Four million babies will be born in the U.S. this year, each one a bundle of infinite potential. They’re the next generation of doctors, scientists, artists, parents, educators and leaders. Science tells us that their early life experiences, from how they are nurtured and the food they eat, to the quality of early learning opportunities and health care they receive, will lay the foundation for lifelong health and well-being. In fact, our brains develop faster in this time than at any later point in our lives.

New data from ZERO TO THREE and Child Trends, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also tells us that where you’re born matters and can make a big difference in your chance for a strong start in life.

ADVERTISEMENT
The new data provide an in-depth look at national and state-by-state progress and compare and rank states based on how they support the youngest in America. While all states have room to grow, the disparities between them reflect different levels of investment in services and systems for babies that can help buffer the effects of poverty and other adverse experiences. For example, infant mortality rates range from 0.0 in Vermont to 9.1 in Alabama and a national average of 5.9.

Overall, the new data show we have a way to go in providing the best possible starts for our babies. The U.S. ranks 31st in child poverty among 38 economically advanced countries, with young children and particularly babies, the group most likely to be poor in America.

Money to cover gas or the electric bill can mean the difference between stability or chaos for families in poverty. Yet, states vary wildly in their reach of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), with a range from 2.6 percent of families with babies that receive TANF benefits in Wyoming to 69.7 percent in Maryland and a national average of 20.6 percent.

For infants and toddlers of color this can be particularly trying — nearly 40 percent of black babies and 30 percent of Hispanic babies live in poverty. During a time of astonishing growth, these babies are more likely to live in inadequate housing and have families that struggle to cover basic expenses.

Good nutrition, nurturing relationships, high quality medical care and early learning experiences support sound bodies and minds and influence all areas of our development. But when families have limited access to social and economic resources, they struggle to provide their babies with the nurturing experiences and basic needs required to thrive.

Persistent hardships such as food insecurity, unstable housing, unsafe neighborhoods and exposure to violence pervade many babies’ lives. Negative or inadequate early life experiences can translate into lower academic achievement, higher disease rates, criminal activity and other challenges that prevent adults from fully contributing to society. When we ignore the critical first few months and years of development, we all pay for it in the long run.

To do better for our babies and our nation’s future, we need Congress and state leaders to make babies a priority, through policies built on the science of brain development and budgets that put babies and families first. This includes providing child care for low-and moderate-income families; ensuring paid family leave and sick leave for all working families; expanding Medicaid; and ensuring that plans cover maternal depression screening and other services that support the emotional development and well-being of parents and children.

Today’s babies will someday be the workers who build a strong economy, the scientists who cure disease and the leaders who provide a vision for the next century. With more babies being welcomed every day, there are 4 million reasons to seize the potential and ensure a brighter future for all of them and for our nation.

Myra Jones-Taylor is chief policy officer at ZERO to THREE, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of better outcomes for babies and their families. The State of Babies Yearbook: 2019 is an initiative of ZERO TO THREE’s Think Babies campaign. Funding partners for Think Babies include the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports the campaign’s public education, and the Perigee Fund, which supports the campaign’s public education and advocacy.