We Should Do Better by Our Babies

Apr 30, 2012

By Hannah Matthews and Stephanie Schmit

A mere eight states ensure that poor babies get the number of developmental screenings recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) during their first year of life. Although more states (40) meet the recommended Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis, and Treatment (EPSDT) screening schedule for children ages 1-2, the very first months of a child's life offer an incomparable opportunity to address potential adverse health conditions or developmental delays, as well as to provide critical supports to parents.

Shortcomings in developmental screening policies and rates are not the only areas where we are shortchanging our youngest children: 

  • Fewer than 3 percent of infants and toddlers receive early intervention services (compared to 6 percent of preschoolers and 12 percent of school-age children)--and this is not because of a lack of need, but rather insufficient resources for identification and services.
  • Similarly, the Head Start preschool program reaches 40 percent of eligible poor children, while Early Head Start reaches a dismal 3 percent of eligible children under age 3.

At a time when human needs services face insufficient funding, we should not pit one age group of children against another. Large shares of children lack basic needs--including quality education, adequate nutrition, and suitable housing--regardless of age.

Yet, the earliest years of life are a period of incredible growth. When babies get the inputs they need--including relationships with caring adults and adequate health and nutrition supports--those inputs help shape the brain and build a healthy foundation for life. Falling short of those inputs leaves babies at risk for negative development in the years to come. When policies and services that help children grow and thrive are lacking, an incredible prevention opportunity is missed.

Whether it's due to a lack of health insurance or medical home, or a problem was not caught early on because a child wasn't screened, losing prevention opportunities add up in the need for intervention at a much higher cost later in life.

House Republicans want to slash funding for programs that support our youngest and poorest children, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants and Children (WIC), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps, and Medicaid (which finances just under half of the births in the U.S.). These cuts are wrongly framed as "repairing" our country's safety net. The traditional image of a safety net, catching those who fall on hard times, misses the important purpose of many basic human needs programs--to lift up our children, promote their health and welfare and help them advance toward brighter futures. Some in Congress say that our federal deficit precludes us from being able to do just that. 

The bottom line is that we are failing to meet the health needs of our youngest and most vulnerable children and, let's be honest, we can't afford that.

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