A Child’s First Three Years Hold the Power to Unlock Bright, Strong Futures

by Ernestine Benedict

The first three years of a child’s life lay the foundation for lifelong health and well-being. From the moment they’re born, babies soak up every interaction and experience from their environments and love from their caregivers. Babies’ brains grow rapidly during those earliest days, weeks, and months, forming 1 million neural connections every second. Understanding the significance of these early stages lies at the heart of ZERO TO THREE’s mission. As the premier organization that translates the science of early childhood into action, we recognize the profound impact these early experiences have on shaping the trajectory of a child’s life and our collective future.

When we’re born, we have billions of neurons. But they’re not, for the most part, connected. Connections between synapses—or signals sent through the brain—are strengthened through repeated positive experiences. These connections are vital in helping babies learn the essentials they need to survive and thrive. As science has provided us a window into how the brain develops and can be nurtured, it has also documented how the early years can lead to profound and lasting gains in school achievement and lifelong success…or not. Research shows that early adverse experiences become integrated into our bodies, impacting lifelong development, emotional success, and mental and physical health. This stark reality is one where disparities in access to resources and high-quality care create barriers to success, perpetuating cycles of poverty and inequality.

There are 11 million infants and toddlers in the United States, and each is born with unlimited potential. In communities across the country, families are striving to give their children a good start in life. They share a common desire for their babies to be healthy, happy, and secure. Yet far too many families face considerable obstacles. Decades of underinvestment in systems for supporting the health and well-being of young children and the insidious impacts of systemic racism often stand in their way. In the U.S., roughly 2 million infants and toddlers live in poverty. About 40% live in families without enough income to make ends meet.

When parents and caregivers receive the support, they need to foster close connections and healthy relationships with their babies, they can serve as a buffer against the impacts of ongoing and inherited trauma many families face every day. That’s why ZERO TO THREE is leading the Think Babies™  movement, advocating for policy changes to address urgent priorities — maternal health, infant and early childhood mental health, early learning and child care, housing, and economic security. Families from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. came together on April 30 for the 8th annual Strolling Thunder™ rally on Capitol Hill, urging policymakers to take bold action now. Our collective message is clear: By investing in policies that support the well-being of babies, we can ensure all children have an equal opportunity to thrive throughout life and build a brighter, stronger, healthier future for our nation.

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