Early Head Start
Every child deserves a strong start in life. The foundation we provide for them shapes their future and the future of our communities. We have to get it right.
During the first three years of life, the brains and bodies of infants and toddlers make huge gains in development. Babies’ brains develop faster from birth to age three than at any later point, and their early experiences—both positive and negative—build the foundation for brain and body architecture that will support their ability to learn and their overall social, emotional, and physical health.
Early Head Start comprehensively promotes healthy child and family development for pregnant people, infants, and toddlers during the critical prenatal-to-three window. This evidence-based program creates opportunities for both parents and children, helping parents with incomes below the poverty line improve their economic security while ensuring their young children are on a solid path toward healthy development.
By investing in programs that support families with infants and toddlers, we can give children a healthy foundation in life and drive economic growth for communities and the families who live in those communities. We must act now to ensure that all babies and toddlers have the foundation to grow into socially, emotionally, and physically healthy children who are confident, empathetic, and ready for school and life.
The Need for Early Head Start
Every child deserves a strong start in life, but not every child starts from the same place. Nearly 19% of babies in the U.S. live in families with incomes below the poverty line. Systemic barriers create circumstances where families cannot always provide the essential resources babies need to thrive.
Early Head Start leverages both federal investments and community resources to best meet the needs of families they serve.
The Early Head Start approach includes:
- Prenatal and postpartum services for expectant families including health care and education on healthy fetal development, labor and delivery, postpartum recovery, parental depression, infant care, safe sleep practices, and the benefits of breast feeding.
- Early childhood education through a variety of learning experiences including high-quality center-based programs, family child care, and home visits.
- Family supports that connect families with available community resources including employment, transportation, housing support, and more.
- Health services in the community to ensure children have access to immunizations, dental, medical, mental health, and nutritional services, as well as early identification of health problems.
- Family engagement that focuses on preparing parents as primary teachers and nurturers in the planning and implementation of services for their child’s well-being and development.
These supports, focused on early development and learning, help parents become better equipped with the skills to build a strong foundation for their young child’s future.
The Benefits of and Opportunity to Expand Access to Early Head Start
For 25 years, Early Head Start has been a proven model to positively affect the development, health, and well-being of young children and their families.
Early Head Start research shows success for children and parents:
- Children in Early Head Start showed positive impacts at ages 2 and 3, including enhanced cognitive and language skills, decreased aggressive behaviors, increased engagement with parents during play, and increased rates of immunization.
- Early Head Start provides parents with the resources they want and need to support their children’s development and their families’ economic well-being. Research has shown that parents in Early Head Start were more emotionally supportive, provided more support for children’s language development and learning, and were less likely to use harsh discipline strategies such as spanking. Enrollment in Early Head Start also promoted parents’ participation in education and training as well as their employment.iii
- Positive impacts on children’s development were still evident two years later upon entry into kindergarten. In particular, children who followed Early Head Start with formal pre-K programs between the ages of 3 and 5 fared the best.
Despite the proven benefits, only 11% of infants and toddlers who are eligible for Early Head Start are currently being served by it, and the proportion served varies from 3% to 23% across states.
More state and federal investments are crucial to increase access to Early Head Start for more young children and their families, so they are able to benefit from the proven results of the program.
Calls to Action
- Early Head Start is our chance to make a powerful commitment to our youngest generation. Infants and toddlers must be our highest priority. They need our investment in evidence-based Early Head Start programs now because they only get one chance at a strong start.
- We need to ensure infants and toddlers grow into socially and emotionally healthy children who are confident and empathetic. State and federal policymakers can support infants, toddlers, and their families during this critical time of brain and body development by increasing investments in Early Head Start (and programs modeled on Early Head Start) to expand equitable access to all eligible infants, toddlers, and pregnant people.