By Michele Rivest, Policy Director, NC Early Education Coalition
April 12, 2019
Every time, I see a new parent walking a baby in a stroller, it makes my day a little brighter. Babies are just too cute and their sweet smiles just make me happy while I talk to their proud parents.
I am a grandparent now, and I think back to when my daughter had Emma, our first granddaughter. Erika was young and worked in Communications at the University, and she planned to keep working when Emma arrived so that she and her husband could buy their first home and start a family in Boone.
Well, their plans changed dramatically when Emma arrived. All went well, until Erika went back to work part-time after 3 months unpaid leave. She had hired an in-home young babysitter with some early childhood experience at a local child care center. In just two short weeks, Erika called saying it just wasn’t going to work out. She didn’t want to leave Emma – they both cried every day as she left home and she worried about her all day long and couldn’t concentrate at work. She was missing baby milestones that she wanted to experience first-hand – Emma rolling over, laughing, eating solid food. She tried but couldn’t find or afford better child care and just didn’t want to miss out on the early days with Emma. The family explored all the options including whether one of the grandparents could come and live with them (no, none of us could – we were all working too), and after two months of struggling to make it work, they decided Erika would quit her job to be a stay-at-home mom.
This was a lucky family. Erika could stay afford to take maternity leave and time off from her job, and choose to be a stay-at-home-mom and be with Emma. She had good job prospects for returning to work in the future, her husband could support the family until she returned to work, and the extended family was nearby to help out.
Now, I think about babies and families because I have worked in early childhood education my whole career, starting out years ago as a teacher in a child care center that served infants and toddlers and preschoolers. During my career I learned about brain science and how babies develop and learn.
Scientists have documented that our brains grow faster between the ages of 0 and 3 than at any later point in life. Babies need relationships with nurturing, skillful adults – their parents, family members, caregivers, and teachers – who can support their healthy development. They need to live in safe and supportive communities with access to food and nutrition, health care, job opportunities, and good schools. We now also know from science that when children are surrounded by all that they need to thrive – healthy beginnings, supported families, quality early learning – they can become resilient and overcome obstacles such as poverty or violence that fall in their way.
Today, I think about babies because I work for the NC Early Education Coalition and we are a proud partner in the national Think Babies™ initiative designed to promote public awareness and policy solutions on issues facing today’s infants, toddlers, and their families. In North Carolina, our work is guided by 20 early childhood organizations with interest and expertise in child health, family support, and early education. We’ve taken a hard look at the issues facing today’s babies and their families, and the policies and programs that are needed to support them.
We’ve discovered that the same issues that my daughter’s family faced are still confronting families today – economic security, health care, quality child care, and family support. We believe that these issues must be at the top of our state and national priority list. We know from data and research that while many families will be surrounded by all the resources they need, too many will face obstacles and challenges that will adversely affect their child’s healthy development and learning and their family’s security and well-being.
Let’s look at today’s realities. Today’s families are working families: 65% of all families with young children including those with infants and toddlers are working. Many of these families are the working poor, working two or more jobs and still not able to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck, often without access to health care or enough food to make it through the month.
It takes every parent working to be able to provide for their family’s well-being and all the expenses of everyday life. Few families will have opportunities like Erika did to stay at home with their new baby. In fact, one out of four new moms returns to work within just two weeks of giving birth because they don’t have paid family leave or job security. Working families need access to affordable, quality early care and education programs so that they can work. Yet, quality child care is incredibly expensive, on average $10,000 a year, which is more than the cost of a one year of public college tuition in North Carolina.
That’s a sticker shock for any new parents, but for low income families that is an impossible amount to pay. The average cost of infant and toddler care represents 61% of the annual income of a parent earning minimum wage in North Carolina. Statewide, there are more than 29,000 children under the age of 5 on the waitlist for child care subsidies, a program that provides financial assistance so they can parents can work. And quality child care is scarce and hard to find. North Carolina is known as a “child care desert” with 5 parents competing for every available slot. Pregnant parents often find themselves searching for quality child care and getting on wait lists months before their child is born.
Some families struggle with parenting their newborn babies. Maybe they are a young teen parent without a nearby parent to help out. Some new moms have health issues themselves – like post-partum depression and may not be bonding with their babies, or their babies may have special health issues. Others may be overwhelmed by poverty or family violence and not know where to turn. That’s when home visiting programs can be invaluable in connecting families with child development and parenting guidance, as well as information about community resources that can help them get off to a healthy start at a critical time during their baby’s development.
Today, this is why I am thinking about babies – all 120,000 babies that are born every year in North Carolina. I want all babies and families to have the opportunities that my family has had over the years. I want every baby and family to have all that they need to grow, learn and succeed in life.
The good news is we know what to do to help babies and families thrive. North Carolina has a great history and track record of developing policies and programs that lead to better outcomes in children’s health and early learning. North Carolina researchers at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy can back me up on this with their studies about the effectiveness of Family Connects, Healthy Start, Smart Start, and the NC Pre-K program.
Please join us in our Think Babies work in North Carolina. Learn more about it here. You can take the Think Babies™ NC pledge at http://bit.ly/ThinkBabiesNCPledge and sign on to take action and share your hopes and dreams for babies and families with our state policymakers.
Remind them often throughout the next few months that it’s time to Think Babies and make their potential our top priority. When we support them in their earliest years, we prepare our babies to grow, learn and succeed—and our communities, workforce and economy become stronger and more productive. Remind them now is the time to Think Babies and to adopt policies built on the science of brain development and to support budgets that put babies and families first.
Let’s work together for the next few months to get a strong budget for babies across the finish line. It’s time now to take more than baby steps!