School readiness can start with a diaper change

By age three, young children from lower-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than children from upper-income families. Research shows that these inequities during the preschool and kindergarten years largely persist throughout life.

At this month's Clinton Global Initiative America Meeting, The National Diaper Bank Network announced that it is thrilled to be teaming up with Too Small to Fail, a joint initiative of the Clinton Foundation and The Opportunity Institute, to provide kids with the early language exposure that will get them ready to succeed in school. Our Talk Read Sing for Change program will deliver Penguin Young Reader Books and tips on doing fun language activities to parents through the diaper banks that already serve these families. We'll also be distributing millions of diapers to these same families though the program, thanks to the generosity of Huggies.

Books and diapers may seem like an odd couple. In fact, diapers are an indispensible ingredient for early childhood success. Finding a way to meet a child's basic needs can be an overwhelming task for parents struggling to raise a family in poverty. It will come before things like making up silly rhymes, singing a song at bath time or cuddling up with a book. That is why the word deficit is so enormous in the first place.

Research links the chronic stress of poverty to poor language development. Providing diapers is a sound and cost-efficient way to approach that problem. It relieves stress by meeting a basic need that can be among the hardest for parents to obtain. Research shows that diaper need is a stressor for low-income mothers and has a strong association with maternal depression. Mothers in the study ranked diaper need as more stressful than food insecurity. While a variety of government and non-profit programs supply food for families in need, almost none provide diapers. This threatens the health of children and generally makes them ineligible for day cares, which insist that parents supply diapers. Thus parents cannot go to work and children are denied early childhood education.

Of course, this goes beyond language. We don't sing lullabies and read books with our babies because we want them to be little geniuses. We do it to express love and closeness - something children need desperately. So babies and toddlers will benefit in many ways from Talk Read Sing for Change.

Let me be clear: Parents in poverty love their children just like anyone else and want to do what is best for them. I have seen parents do a superhuman job of providing wonderful experiences and caring for their children despite struggling with poverty. But it is indeed a struggle. Think of your most frustrating and exhausting day a work. Throw in a family crisis - perhaps an aging parent in the hospital. Did your kids get story time on that day? Did you chatter happily to them while you made dinner? Probably not. That level of stress is present in very low-income homes nearly every day.

So books and diapers are not such an odd couple. We're encouraging participating parents to use diaper changes as a prompt to take a few minutes to read with their children. That simple change can change so much.