It’s back-to-school time – a time filled with many tasks like getting backpacks in order, lining up new shoes, sharpening pencils and crayons, and playing peek-a-boo with baby.
Some parents may wonder what playing with their baby has to do with back to school. As it turns out, the activities are closely linked.
Research shows that the foundations for school readiness start even before a baby is born and proceed at lightning speed through the first years. But many parents are not aware of just how early their babies’ brains are developing—taking in and responding to experiences in the world in their earliest months, with impacts into the long-term. This disconnect is what ZERO TO THREE refers to as the “missing first year.” Helping parents capture that missing year—to fully understand how much is going on in their babies’ brains and to make the everyday parenting choices that can add up to big differences in the early years —will ensure that all babies get a great start, long before they tie their shoes and grab their backpack for big kid school.
First, some brain development basics: The most rapid brain development occurs in the first three years of life. The experiences babies have in the world produce neural connections at a rate of 700 or more per second. Babies who experience loving, sensitive caregiving are literally “wired” to expect to be well-cared for and to see the world as a safe place. This in turn provides the security they need to focus on the most important work of early childhood—exploration which leads to learning. These babies feel safe and confident to explore their world and develop and the cognitive skills they need to be successful in school, along with attributes such as curiosity, empathy, and persistence, and the ability to cooperate and be good problem-solvers. Babies who experience insensitive care have brains that are wired to look out for danger, that are preoccupied with ensuring their safety. This insecurity inhibits children’s ability to learn and to form positive relationships with others, as they have come to expect that relationships are not safe or pleasurable. Thus early childhood, particularly the first few years of life, is a time of great opportunity and great vulnerability for brain growth and development. The experiences children have with their primary providers during this time have the power to shape the structure and alter the functions of the brain.
Research shows parents do not realize how much learning takes place in the early years.
Millions of adults who are parents to infants and toddlers want to do the best for their children. So ZERO TO THREE asked millennial and Generation X parents how we can help. Tuning In, the national parent survey we conducted in partnership with the Bezos Family Foundation, provided valuable insight into what parents understand about early development and how deeply their babies and toddlers are affected by the way parents care for them. Findings show that many parents do not realize just how much babies are taking in and being shaped by their experiences in the world, or the range of emotions they can experience—even in the earliest months. Consider this:
- One out of three parents think children’s brains develop most rapidly between ages three to five years. This actually occurs during the first three years of life.
- Two out of five parents think babies don’t start feeling fear or sadness until they are one year old. In fact, they can experience these feelings as young as three months.
- Almost half of all parents believe that it is not until age one year that babies are affected by parents’ moods and can sense anger or sadness. In fact, babies are affected much earlier.
In short, parents’ underestimation of the impact early experiences have on babies’ brains and overall development constitutes the “missing first year”—the time when parents need to be most sensitive to how their everyday interactions with their babies are impacting their long-term development. These things matter: how parents care for their babies’ needs and feelings starting from birth is a critical factor in children’s healthy functioning.
Helping parents find the missing year.
The good news is that parents absolutely believe good parenting can be learned and are eager to find more positive strategies. They also feel the weight of the tough job they are doing. The ZERO TO THREE survey found that many parents feel judged by their co-parent and community members, and about half feel they don’t get the support they need when they are stressed. While parents cite their own upbringing as having the strongest influence on the way they themselves parent, and that they often turn to their own moms for advice, many also say they want to do things differently from their parents. This is especially true for fathers.
Of course, parents don’t raise their children in a bubble. There are many stressors, such as financial strain and lack of access to critical supports, which can challenge families. Supporting parents in the job of parenting is surely one of the functions of community. The big stake in this journey is that parents are taking on the incredibly important work of raising the country’s future innovators, thinkers and doers. As parents help lay the bedrock structure in those tiny brains, they are literally building the foundation of the nation’s future. Surely society should do more than pat parents on the back and wish them all the best. Key national policies can help. Here are a few:
- The gift of time: A national paid family leave policy would give parents the time off from work to become attuned to their babies without adding economic stress. If parents are missing babies’ early capacity of feelings, one reason could be that they have to rush back to work too soon.
- Easy access to expertise parents can trust: Approaches like Healthy Steps give parents needed support by putting a child development specialist in a place all families go to and trust: the pediatrician’s office.
- Universal starting point: There is more that unites parents than divides, so models like Welcome Baby in Los Angeles or Durham Connects in North Carolina treat them all equally, starting out with a helpful home visit for all, then winding down as parents gain confidence. Some parents face multiple challenges to raising children and meeting their own needs. In these cases, proven approaches can provide extra support.
- Early Head Start partners with parents who lack economic resources to help improve their parenting skills and their babies’ positive developmental outcomes. Yet only one in five eligible children are currently served because of funding shortfalls.
- Home visitors, supported at the federal level by the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program, offer in-home support to families with young children. Research on various models show benefits including improved child development, more positive parenting, reduced incidence of child abuse, and greater economic self-sufficiency.
Too often, society focuses on statistics that discourage us about children’s prospects, such as how many children are already behind when they enter school. But here’s a statistic that inspires hope: in our parent survey, nine out of 10 parents from all backgrounds told us that being a parent is their greatest joy. That intensity of feeling and desire to do the best possible job is the magic ingredient to lay the groundwork for children’s future success. Shouldn’t we do everything possible to support them? The next President and Congress should take on this challenge, so fundamental to our society: help parents find the missing year and give them a parenting edge to nurture healthy, happy children.