This month marks the beginning of the season of merriment and wonder. It's a time to be reflective, a time to be with friends and family, and a time when we give back to our community, especially to those in need. And, let's face it, it's also a time when we give and receive lots of gifts. While many will buy toys or clothes for the babies and toddlers in our lives, there is another important gift we should be giving: the gift of a strong start.
We intuitively know that the first years of life are critical. But why are they so important? In short, a baby's brain is simply exploding with possibility and buzzing with activity. It is shaped by the everyday moments shared with nurturing caregivers. During the first three months alone, 700 new neural connections are formed in the brain every second -- that's 42,000 per minute, and more than 2.5 million in an hour.
Critical wiring and learning is taking place inside a baby's brain from day one. Their brains are making trillions of connections -- or synapses -- during this time. If the inputs they are receiving from their environment while these connections are being made are healthy and positive, good things happen. For instance, the back-and-forth communication, through coos, facial expressions, and gestures, between a baby and a nurturing adult, stimulates activity in the brain. The more of this that occurs, the more brain connections will be reinforced, and the more opportunity the baby has to thrive.
Babies are this nation's entrepreneurs, leaders, athletes and educators in the making. Investment in their development, therefore, means a greater return for society. As a result, it is imperative that we ensure they have the tools to be as successful as possible in their future endeavors.
According to a recent national poll, 85 percent of voters place children getting a strong start in life as one of the highest national priorities, second only to increasing jobs and economic growth. But the starting point for learning and development starts with babies on day one -- three to four years before a child enters Pre-K.
First and foremost, babies and their parents need the gift of time to begin the relationship that teaches babies how the world works and how they are valued. Paid time-off from work for parents would allow them to spend critical, quality time with their new babies in their earliest and most needy stage. Healthy babies who receive plenty of reassurance during stressful times -- from having a first bath to encountering a scary situation -- actually have larger brains than babies who don't get as much nurturing.
Secondly, increasing funding for comprehensive early development and learning opportunities is key to long-term growth and social readiness. Early Head Start is the centerpiece of federal strategies for very young children living in poverty because of its proven approach, intergenerational nature, inclusion of pregnant women, and availability to children regardless of a parents' employment status. Quality child care is a must for the 6 million babies and toddlers whose parents trust them to other adults so they can work.
Finally, strong families serve as the foundation for lifelong learning and success. This is not only physical strength -- for which reliable medical coverage is critical -- but also for mental strength. Expanding Medicaid reimbursement for relationship-based mental health services, for instance, would allow parents and babies to participate in therapy together when they need help, strengthening emotional foundations. Additionally, investing in home visiting programs is a proven way to provide parents with the support and know how to nurture their young child's healthy development. Having programs and policies that give parents the resources they need when times are tough are what make our society strong and resilient.
The White House is hosting a Summit on Early Education this week to underscore why investments during the early years are so important. There are many organizations and experts taking part, including ours. For us, ensuring that babies and toddlers experience quality early relationships -- whether at home or in childcare -- in order to be ready for future learning and success is our mission. Giving all babies the chance to seize the opportunities ahead of them -- whatever those may be -- seems like a gift we can all give and be thankful for this holiday season.