Policy Resource

What Can We Do About Babies? Putting Infants and Toddlers in the Policy Picture

Dec 14, 2015

We most certainly know what we can and should do for babies—and it’s time to get started.

The past two decades have seen great progress in getting the message to policymakers about the importance of the first three years of life and the gaps that can start opening in infancy—only to be met by shrugs of doubt that anyone knows “what to do about babies.” As advocates, we know this is not the case. An array of proven interventions such as parental leave, home visiting, high quality child care, and Early Head Start can help families get their babies off to a good start in life. Yet, we also understand that putting together the various pieces of the infant-toddler policy puzzle is not simple. To help policymakers solve the riddle, ZERO TO THREE recently updated an important resource, Infants and Toddlers in the Policy Picture: A Self-Assessment Toolkit for States, to guide states through examining and improving their policies for the youngest children.

The first three years of life are a period of incredible growth in all areas of a baby’s development. These areas are inextricably related. One cannot be emphasized at the expense of the others: physical health and social and emotional growth are integral to cognitive development. And all of this development unfolds in the context of close relationships with trusted adults, both within families and in caregiving settings.

In policy terms, these interrelated areas mean that all babies need good health, strong families, and positive early learning experiences. When families lack access to key ingredients for healthy, positive development, a child’s early years can become a time of vulnerability rather than promise. Research shows that vulnerable babies start falling behind in infancy, long before they cross the threshold of a prekindergarten program.

Public policy can help ensure that babies and toddlers living in high-risk environments receive the additional supports needed to promote their healthy growth and development. But while the question we usually ask about older preschoolers is fairly simple—“How do we provide the opportunity for all children to access quality prekindergarten services?”—the question for babies and toddlers is more complex–“How do we reach the most vulnerable children and families wherever they are and support their early development?”

Infants and Toddlers in the Policy Picture: A Self-Assessment Toolkit for States helps states think holistically about what babies need and assemble the components for a strong, comprehensive system of services and supports to ensure all babies have a chance to thrive. The toolkit guides states in assessing their progress in promoting what all babies need—good health, strong families, and positive early learning experience—and the systems and collaboration needed to give their families access to quality services.

For each area, the user-friendly toolkit prompts states to first collect data on how their infants and toddlers are doing and then to examine whether the state has recommended policies and funding in place. The toolkit is organized so that states can easily access data from national sources and see how they compare to other states. The toolkit also gives states access to stakeholder survey questions that can be used to gather input on how services are delivered in their own communities. Parties interested in consulting with someone at ZERO TO THREE about how best to use the toolkit in their states may contact Barbara Gebhard at bgebhard@zerotothree.org.

We know from the science that the earliest years are a window of both opportunity and vulnerability. We know that proven interventions can help their families support early development so babies and toddlers are on the right track for success in school and in life. And we know how to roll up our sleeves and assemble the right policy picture for the youngest children. In short, we most certainly know what we can and should do for babies—and it’s time to get started.

  • Author

    Patricia A. Cole

    Senior Director of Federal Policy


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