Building a Fair Start

 The first 1,000 days are a window of opportunity to enable all children to reach their potential.

Every child deserves the opportunity to thrive. But millions of young children don’t get this opportunity. They are born into unstable or unsafe environments, or lack the nurturing and nourishment needed for their bodies and brains to grow. They and their families contend with poverty and other barriers that prevent them from getting the nutrition and care they need to reach their developmental potential. These children start out life at a disadvantage—often, beginning before they are even born—making it harder for them to get a good education, lead a healthy life or earn a good living as adults. In turn, this perpetuates inequality and a cycle of poverty that can cut across generations.

The first 1,000 days are a window of opportunity to break this cycle, build more equal beginnings and put all children on track to flourish. Evidence shows that when young children are well-nourished, cared for and protected from disease, violence and toxic stress, they have the best chance at a thriving future. And when children get a strong start, we all benefit. What we do – or don’t do – now to build every child’s potential will determine their future—and ours.

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Pregnancy

The well-being of a mother and her child are intertwined right from the start.

A healthy baby starts with a healthy mother. However, research suggests that inequalities in child development often begin before a child is even born. Poverty and food insecurity during pregnancy not only harms the health of a mother, but also that of her baby. Even at low levels, food insecurity can have long-lasting impacts on developing children, compounding the effects of other risk factors associated with poverty, such as reduced access to health care and unstable or unsafe housing.

Even the stress associated with these conditions negatively impacts a baby’s development. Studies show that exposure to elevated levels of stress hormones in utero can lead to long-term negative outcomes for children such as cognitive delays, attention disorders, trouble in school and emotional problems.

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Infancy

Women need support to nourish their babies well.

Breastfeeding provides unparalleled brain-building benefits and gives babies the healthiest start to life. However, too many women lack the support they need to start breastfeeding and continue breastfeeding as long as they want to. Low-income women in particular face frequent barriers to breastfeeding – such as lack of paid leave, cultural perceptions and attitudes related to breastfeeding, limited breastfeeding knowledge and lack of support. In the U.S., how well and how long mothers are able to breastfeed appears to be correlated with a woman’s income and education. Wealthier and more educated women tend to breastfeed more and longer.

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Early Childhood

Nourishing children’s potential.

Healthy food is critical to the proper growth and development of young children. However, infants and toddlers in food insecure homes or facing poverty are vulnerable to stunting—a physical and cognitive condition that means a person’s body and brain are damaged by the ravages of malnutrition. The damage done to a child’s brain and body when she is stunted are irreversible and these children are at serious risk for developmental problems later in life.

Researchers have found that food insecure infants and toddlers are more likely to be at risk for developmental delays. In addition to impacting their cognitive development, food insecurity puts young children at greater risk for behavioral and emotional problems, which can also undermine their ability to succeed in school.