We Must Start Earlier: The Critical Importance of 0-3
Most people agree that the foundation for later learning and skill-building is shaped by children’s earliest childhood experiences. But do we all agree on what “early” means?
Our brains grow faster between the ages of 0 and 3 than at any later point in our lives, forming more than one million new neural connections every second. When babies have nurturing relationships, early learning experiences, and good health and nutrition, these neural connections are stimulated and strengthened, laying a strong foundation for success in school and the workforce.
Unfortunately, too many babies aren’t getting what they need, forming shaky foundations from which to grow. ZERO TO THREE’s State of Babies Yearbook: 2019 finds that nearly half of America’s babies live in or near poverty and many young children face a range of risk factors that can impede positive development.
Gaps in education outcomes start before entry to K-12 education and even before pre-kindergarten. However, most of our investments in early childhood start too late, at ages 4 and older. By that time, the most crucial years of early brain development have passed. For example, research shows that at age 2, toddlers from low-income families are already 6 months behind in their language processing skills. Without greater investment in the first 3 years, many children will miss the opportunity to reach their full potential.
The healthy development of infants into toddlers is vital for children, their families, and our communities. Giving all babies a strong start in life must be a priority for our business leaders. Creating policies and making investments in high-quality early learning programs, supports and resources for parents, access to preventive health care and nutrition programs, and interventions for developmental delays and mental health issues gets babies off to the healthy start they need to thrive.
In addition, it’s good for the economy.
Research from economist James Heckman shows that quality early childhood programs that begin at birth can deliver a 13 percent per year return on investment. This can be seen through more years of education, more employment, and better adult health.
And that’s just one side of the coin. On the other side, it’s important to understand the benefits of investing in the earliest years for today’s workforce. When business leaders support initiatives and movements related to early childhood programs, they are having a more immediate impact on the productivity and well-being of their current workforce.
Working parents want to give their children a strong start in life, but public policy has not kept up with the demands of today’s parenting. For example, high-quality infant-toddler childcare that nurtures healthy child development is hard to find and often prohibitively expensive, with costs higher than college tuition at a public state university in the majority of states.
When high-quality, reliable childcare options are out of reach or unavailable, working parents struggle to both meet their children’s needs and to succeed at work. The U.S. Chamber Foundation finds that the nation’s childcare crisis for infants and toddlers costs businesses $3 billion in revenue annually due to employee absenteeism as the result of childcare breakdowns.
At ZERO TO THREE, we work hard to help federal and state policymakers understand and prioritize the needs of infants, toddlers, and their families. Our focus is on making the potential of every baby a national priority and we encourage business leaders to find their voice in that conversation.
Through Think Babies™, we are spreading the word about the importance of the early years and working closely with both national partners and partner organizations in six states. Each year, we host an annual Strolling Thunder™ event, where we bring constituent families from 50 states and the District of Columbia to share their experiences about what they need to support their baby’s healthy development.