By Anna Youngerman
For many parents, sleep-deprived might be how we choose to describe the first three years of a child’s life — at least it has been for me. But as I look through the haze of too few hours of sleep, there’s also magic to these early years. I frequently find myself in a state of awe and wonder at my growing child. The first time your baby catches your eye and holds your gaze, the first time he says “mommy,” the cobbling together of phrases to describe his day and even the frustration-driven tantrums — those are all magical moments.
It turns out there’s a reason the awe-inspiring moments come fast and furious during these earliest years. The brain wiring is on hyper-drive:
- 80 percent of brain development happens by the time a child is 3 years old.
- 700 new neural connections are made every second in the first few years of life.
This naturally occurring development can serve as a springboard for a productive, healthy life. Yet, just as a magician must carefully prepare for a trick so it appears both astonishing and seamless, helping every child realize the powerful potential of these years also requires intentional support.
Though our paper, “Foundation for Life: The Significance of Birth to Three,” we want to inspire more robust discussion and action around the value of investments in and attention to our youngest children. We want to invite the tough questions and – more importantly – be part of answering them:
- What can we do, collectively, to reach the most vulnerable children?
- How do we mitigate toxic stress factors that tear away at a child’s potential?
- What’s the community’s role in ensuring that no child lacks the positive relationships so crucial to healthy development?
- How do we build a coordinated system that focuses on what a child needs and not what the system needs?
- How do we reach children at an age (0-3) when they often are cared for by family, friends and neighbors and not always tied to existing systems?
These aren’t easy questions, but just because they’re tough doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take them on and figure out how to work together toward getting answers. The stakes are just too high and the opportunity too great.
Like most parents, I’ll gladly navigate my sleep deprivation in exchange for giving my kiddo every opportunity he deserves. That’s the hope and dedication we want to inspire. I hope you’ll join us.
Anna Youngerman is the director of advocacy and health policy at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota and a proud parent of her 2-year-old son.