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Doctor's View: Paid family leave supports a healthy start in life

From the column: "Let’s make nurturing and teaching young children during their first 1,000 days a top priority."

FILE: University Nursery School
Preschoolers play at a University Nursery School location in early 2019. (File / News Tribune)

Why is paid family leave so important? For working parents and pregnant women, caring for a new baby can mean time off from work and missed paychecks. Many mothers may miss prenatal appointments or rush back to work a couple of weeks after delivery because of financial stress. The threat of losing a job or even their home is too great.

Caring for an ill or elderly family member is another challenge.

Paid family leave enables parents to provide calm nurturing for their new baby with minimal stress during the first six to 12 weeks of life to form a foundation for further learning and development. Brain science tells us that babies are born ready to learn, and that learning is most rapid during the first 1,000 days of life (from birth to 3 years old). The size of the brain doubles in the first year!

Talking to a baby, singing, reading, and playing back-and-forth games are all forms of teaching that cause a baby to form thousands of new brain-cell connections each day. Interacting with a consistent responsive adult teaches a baby to trust and to reach out for more contact from that adult and, eventually, from others as well.

When parents are ready to return to work, finding high-quality child care is essential and can be difficult, especially in certain urban and some rural areas. Child-care workers who respond to each child as an individual can continue the rapid progress begun by parents. Stable relationships are formed.

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Unfortunately, child-care workers often do not earn a living wage, and staff turnover is high. Many child-care locations have had to close because families cannot afford the cost.

Children who receive early nurturing and teaching in the first three years learn how to learn. State and federal funding for early education has traditionally been very low, and it needs to increase. About $10,000 per year is provided for each public-school student in K-12 while only a few hundred dollars are allocated for each early-childhood and preschool student. Only 50% of young families are able to bear the cost.

The system is broken.

When children enter kindergarten ready to learn, fewer remedial classes and behavioral interventions are needed, and more of these students stay in school until graduation. Future lifetime problems like unemployment and incarceration are decreased when children succeed in school. The effects of early-childhood education truly do last a lifetime.

Let’s make nurturing and teaching young children during their first 1,000 days a top priority.

State and federal Legislators are deciding right now how to set funding for the next two years. Let them know that you want them to fully fund paid family leave. Helping families afford child care and early education is critical, and child-care workers need a living wage. Early education can prevent the so-called “learning gap” when children start school and beyond. Children of low-income families, children of color, and children in certain rural areas are at special risk.

Please take a moment to call or email your senators and representatives to say that, as a constituent, you want federal and state dollars spent where they can have the biggest payoff for our communities and our state, now and for years to come: on paid family leave and early-childhood education.

With $525 million from the American Rescue Plan and a sizable portion of the next $2.5 billion of federal assistance, Minnesota could fully fund early care and education for the estimated 35,000 babies and toddlers who are missing out. It’s one-time help and not a permanent solution, but what a difference it could make for a whole generation of our youngest Minnesotans while long-lasting funding is set up.

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Dr. Mary Meland of Minneapolis is a member of a group called Doctors for Early Childhood and wrote this on the group’s behalf.

Mary Meland.jpg
Mary Meland

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