More Than Tears: What Congress Can Learn From a Baby’s Cries

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When a baby cries, we wonder why. We ask, “Is she hungry? Is he tired? Maybe she is getting sick?” But a baby’s cries actually are more complicated, expressing everything from anxiety to anger to joy. As we become attuned to a baby’s cues, we respond with our best guesses, and learn from what the baby does next.

As a baby develops, she gets more specific — using expressions or gestures that we have come to understand, as well as words to express feelings, learn about her place in the world and manage a myriad of situations. The way a baby experiences, regulates and expresses feelings form the foundation for strong emotional health, placing the baby on the path to being a productive worker and citizen later in life.

While a baby’s cries can tell parents a great deal, they are also instructional for members of Congress and the new administration as they look to create a stronger economy and future workforce.

While common sense tells us that basic necessities, such as food and shelter, are essential for an infant’s healthy development, the ingredients he needs to thrive go far beyond. During the first three years of life, 700 new neural connections are formed in babies’ brains every second. Critical wiring and learning takes place right from the start, influenced by the environment in which a baby lives and plays. Babies as young as 3 months have the capacity to experience peaks of joy and elation as well as depths of grief, sadness, hopelessness and intense anger and rage.

Babies are deeply affected by what’s happening around them. While every infant experiences a degree of stress, some babies are exposed to dynamics in their environment that make them feel constantly scared and vulnerable. These can include a parent’s ongoing anxiety about financial or relationship difficulties, a caregiver’s struggle with drug addiction or depression, or direct abuse and neglect. For the nearly 46 percent of children under 3 years old who live in or near poverty in our country, the additional environmental factors they face — such as food and housing insecurity — mean that nearly half of America’s very young children are at risk for experiencing chronic and unrelenting stress that can be toxic to their developing brains.

Strong nurturing relationships are essential to building healthy brains and to providing a protective buffer from sources of toxic stress — mitigating the negative threats environmental stress causes babies. Babies who experience sensitive, responsive caregiving are more likely to recover from stressful situations, develop stronger problem-solving and critical thinking skills, become effective communicators and learn to understand and manage feelings.

For the more than 6 million infants and toddlers who are in child care while their parents work, their caregivers also play a role in supporting development. But the chance that these very young children are receiving the care best proven to promote healthy development is unfortunately slim. Inadequate caregiver-to-child ratios, combined with a lack of training and poor compensation for providers, add up to a child care system that is simply not equipped to provide the responsive care necessary to build strong social and emotionally capable kids. Child care providers may be particularly unprepared to address the challenging behaviors that may be a child’s way of expressing the stress in his life.

What can the administration and Congress do to ensure babies and toddlers can build the strong emotional foundation that is vital to their future success? They can invest in support to address young children’s mental health and to promote strong emotional development in their families and care settings.

In December, Congress passed the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act as part of the 21st Century Cures Act, which included a key provision authorizing grants to improve mental health promotion, intervention and treatment services for very young children.

An estimated 10 to 14 percent of children from birth to age 5 experience an emotional or behavioral disturbance. This means that 1.9 million to 2.8 million very young children in the U.S. need more intensive mental health support. While Congress has yet to make decisions about funding the grants, it’s important to ensure the investments go where they will make the most difference — and that’s in the earliest stages of development.

Congress can also invest in our national child care system to ensure quality care opportunities, where caregivers are equipped to respond to children’s mental health needs, are available and affordable for families across the socioeconomic spectrum. Research shows that quality child care from birth to age 5 that ensures a focus on building social and emotional skills can not only change the course for disadvantaged children, but deliver a 13 percent return on investment through more years of education, more employment and better adult health.

Congress can follow the lead of California, Rhode Island, Washington, New Jersey and the District of Columbia by establishing a national paid family leave program giving parents and other primary caregivers the time necessary to bond with their young babies, laying the foundation for their future healthy development.

And Congress can expand Early Head Start — a proven community-based program that takes a crucial two-generation approach to support both babies and parents with  comprehensive services such as mental health consultation and responsive caregiving. Yet, it currently only reaches 5 percent of eligible babies and toddlers and only a handful of pregnant women.

What can members of Congress learn from a baby’s cries? A lot, if they listen. It takes more than a pat on the back and a pacifier to get babies off to a great start. The administration and Congress have the opportunity to commit to a stronger economy and future workforce by investing in our children’s emotional health today. When the lasting benefits are considered — improved cognitive outcomes, better problem-solving and stress management skills, and more — it’s clear that some of the biggest returns on investment can be gained by starting on day one.

Cindy Oser is the director of Infant-Early Childhood Mental Health Strategy for ZERO TO THREE, which works to ensure all babies and toddlers benefit from the family and community connections critical to their well-being and development.