The Buffett Early Childhood Institute recently released the third of four reports addressing Early Childhood Care and Education for our youngest citizens. Along with other
Head Start, often considered the earliest program to support early childhood, was launched in 1964 during President Johnson’s "War on Poverty" campaign to eradicate the causes of poverty. President Johnson, a former teacher in a one room schoolhouse in Texas, believed strongly that education was the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. Child development experts found that intervention programs for children ages three to five years old could significantly affect the cognitive and socioemotional development of low income children.
In 1983, the role of nutrition was identified as playing a major role in a child’s physical, mental and social development. Most Head Start children are also served by WIC, a food supplement program for mothers and children ages birth to five years. In the late 1990’s, WIC began to focus on breastfeeding support to increase breastfeeding rates among low income mothers, which were, and continue to be, very low.
It was not until the 1990’s that funding allowed Head Start to serve infants and toddlers birth to three years. Research increasingly reported that children’s brains are greatly impacted in the very early months as brain synapses are forming. One of the most basic and simple interventions to set the stage for brain development and socialization is often missing from many early childhood reports focused on enhancing the learning capacity and emotional growth of our most vulnerable kids.
Human milk and the breastfeeding process both contain elements that increase white matter in the brain. Breastfeeding also impacts important skills related to socialization, trust, and relationships. Encouraging all sectors of our society to acknowledge the value of breastfeeding and provide the support necessary is often left out of early childhood and care discussions.
Do we need to invest in quality child care and quality childhood education? Absolutely! But we also need to add breastfeeding and maternal-infant support services from the very beginning: prenatal and postpartum mental health services for mothers,skin to skin contact after birth, human milk for all babies, baby wearing and frequent holding in child care centers, and paid maternity leave so that mothers have support to give their babies what they need in their earliest months.
Breastfeeding sets our babies up for the best chance to do well in early childhood programs, which means they will do better in school and the work force. The reward is an increased chance for children to take care of themselves and help break the cycle of poverty for generations to come.