Investment in Young Children’s Health Drives Better Lifelong Outcomes

Nearly one in ten North Carolina babies are born at a low birthweight, which can lead to long term delays in development and learning. We can do better. Better for our babies, and better for our economy, which depends on a strong and productive workforce.

When pregnant moms, babies and toddlers get the health care they need, starting from before birth, they are more likely to succeed in life later. The first three years of rapid brain growth set the foundation for the rest of a child’s life. Brain science has found that what babies and toddlers learn and experience during that time can help them reach the developmental milestones needed to succeed.  Investing early in children’s lives reaps the greatest returns.

What’s the foundation for young children’s healthy development? Good prenatal healthcare for their mothers, so they can have good health in utero. Access to health services like medical screenings and immunizations. When children have unmanaged chronic health conditions or don’t receive needed physical or behavioral health care, they may have developmental delays and miss critical development milestones important for later success, such as reading at grade-level by the end of third grade.

Data recently released by the Annie E Casey Foundation’s KidsCount initiative found that, while North Carolina has made strides in improving children’s health outcomes in the last ten years, there is one area where we are doing worse than we were a decade ago. One in ten North Carolina babies are born at low birthweight and are more likely to have physical and developmental problems than other babies. As they grow, they are at higher risk for long-term illness or disability and are more likely to be enrolled in special education classes or to repeat a grade. These delays impact children’s ability to read well and succeed in school, and later in the workforce.

Even more concerning are the racial disparities in babies’ health. Black babies in North Carolina are almost three times more likely to be born with low birthweight than white babies. In large part, this is due to differences in health care access experienced by their parents.

North Carolina has not closed the healthcare gap under the Affordable Care Act. Making that policy change could increase access to health care for moms before and during pregnancy – one of the best ways to ensure on-time births and healthy babies. When parents have health insurance and access to needed healthcare, their children are more likely to go to the doctor, too.

While North Carolina has been a national leader in some aspects of our health system for young children, we have more to do to help our children succeed. Statewide policies and investments that support young children’s healthy development, access to high-quality early childhood care and education, and families’ well-being will lead to healthier children and a thriving North Carolina.

Dr. Charles Willson is an NCECF board member, pediatrician, and child advocate.