As physicians and educators, we know the right timing is essential in healthcare and in education. Too little or too late can make the best care less effective.
For our youngest children, from birth to age 3 is a golden age for rapid brain development, when each interaction with a parent or other caring adult is a learning moment. During pregnancy and the following three years, brain circuits are built that influence health, behavior and learning throughout life. For efforts to strengthen early development, timing is crucial because 90% of brain development happens in those first 3 years. The brain actually doubles in size in the first year!
Healthy nurturing in the first 6-12 weeks of life with cuddling, reading, counting, and “to and fro” interactions with loved ones meets the brain of a baby, which is primed for these interactions. Millions of permanent brain cell connections are made hourly when these interactions occur in the setting of calmness and lack of stress – the benefits to mental, physical, and learning health are enormous. Alternatively, for the annually 40,000 birth-to-3 Minnesotans and their parents whose lives are full of insecurities from birth on, school and life can be a struggle.
While intermittent, manageable stress is necessary for normal growth and development, chronic, unrelenting, and intense stress takes a toll on both the mind and the body. Chronic stress from poverty, racial inequity, or poor health interferes with a parent’s ability to provide a calm, low stress home. Inadequate, overcrowded child care facilities can be stressful also, interfering with early brain development. Research on the brain-body connection shows that early childhood development is important in determining future health. The healthier the brain of an individual, the healthier the body.
In addition to problems with ADHD, mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, and difficulties with relationships and substance abuse disorders, people without a healthy start to life also suffer from physical health issues far in excess of those in people with a healthy start. These problems include high blood pressure, diabetes, susceptibility to infectious diseases (as the COVID pandemic so clearly shows us), heart disease, stroke, and even types of cancer.
As we know, people in poverty, people of color, and people in more remote rural locations and small towns suffer most from lives of struggle and illness. Fortunately, there is hope offered by the rescue and recovery packages passed at the Federal level or being proposed. In the meantime, it is important that our local lawmakers, both statewide and municipal take steps to use the money available to them from the Federal government to prevent further infants and young children and their families from falling under the cloud.
Minnesota is fortunate to have over $1.6B from Federal sources and in excess of $1B in its own budget surplus. Money not used from these Federal sources must be returned. It would be a shame for this to happen when so many Minnesotans, both young and old, need help. This is not the time for lawmakers to pit young against old or persons with disabilities. All can benefit from these funds. Now is the time for lawmakers to act.
Please contact your legislators and local officials and tell them how important it is to you to take action NOW. The Legislature returns to special session Monday, June 14. Please contact your lawmakers at www.gis.leg and the leaders of both the House (Hortman, Winkler) and Senate (Gazelka, Abeler, Benson) immediately. What is before them at present is perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to improve the health and well being of so many Minnesotans, now and in the future. Don’t let them squander this chance with talk of an imaginary “deep tail” in 2026-7!
Doctors for Early Childhood: Dale Dobrin, M.D., Mary Meland, M.D., Roger Sheldon, M.D., Ada Alden.
Dale T. Dobrin, M.D., is an American Board of Pediatrics certified physician at South Lake Pediatrics in the Twin Cities.
Reference: Jack Shonkoff, MD, Director of Harvard Child Development Center in the Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University