U.S. Babies, Toddlers Need Food for Healthy Brain Development

U.S. Babies, Toddlers Need Food for Healthy Brain Development

Sam, my now 4-year old whom I have blogged about so many times in the past year, announced assuredly just now “It’s a lovely day outside!” as he ate his nutritious breakfast of bacon, strawberries, and toast paired with a glass of milk.  His use of the word “lovely” to describe the sunny day he observed out the window over his breakfast tells me that he is well on his way to being ready for school.  He was able to use his language skills to describe something precisely.  He successfully used his visual processing to make an observation about the weather (a common theme in early education), and he was compelled to talk about it once he observed it.  When I asked how he knew it was lovely outside, he said “Because it’s sunny” (a vocabulary word he will need in his Pre-K and Kindergarten classroom during weather-description activities during circle time), which tells me he is able to recall and make connections to other sunny days he has experienced in the past.  The food on his plate, that he so voraciously devours, reminds me of the importance of eating healthy food for his brain development. 

The linked article above, titled “We Can’t Grow the Gap Away” and written by Charles Blow for the NY Times, does not deal with the importance of a healthy diet for healthy brain development in children, but it prompted me to think about the connection between brain development and healthy nutrition.  Everyone knows that brain development in the first 3 years of a child’s life depends on healthy nutrition and plentiful food supplies.  Babies and toddlers simply cannot develop well and reach their full potential if they are starving, underfed or poorly fed.  So, when Blow tells us in the article:

We are reminded ad nauseam about the record number of Americans receiving food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. What we hear far less about is that a record high percentage of poor families with children are not receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal government’s primary welfare program. In 1997, only 36 percent of such families received no TANF benefits; that number in 2012 climbed to 74 percent. 


It stands to reason, then, that food insecurity in this country remains alarming high. The United States Department of Agriculture reported in September that 14.5 percent of the country, or 17.6 million American households, “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources” in 2012. 

Until all babies and toddlers are well-nourished, there will be always be concerns about their brain development and, consequently, their ability to succeed in school.  Babies and toddlers who were underfed or malnourished, or who spent a great deal of their time feeling hungry (preventing them from being ready to or able to learn), will not be as ready for school as those who had plenty of healthy food during the crucial first three years of life.  These malnourished babies and toddlers will grow up to struggle in school.  Parents and educators will feel frustrated by their learning struggles, many of which stemmed from their poor start in life.  These children will face a lifetime of challenges, both in the classroom and outside of it, which leads me back to Blow’s article.

Blow tells us that “the shocking level of income inequality in this country has set off alarms that grow louder by the day, but little seems to be underway to reverse the trend.” He goes on to reveal the following in his article: 

  • a January International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) paper that was officially released on Thursday pointed out that “In the United States, the share of market income captured by the richest 10 percent surged from around 30 percent in 1980 to 48 percent by 2012, while the share of the richest 1 percent increased from 8 percent to 19 percent. Even more striking is the fourfold increase in the income share of the richest 0.1 percent, from 2.6 percent to 10.4 percent.”
  • a study published last year in The Journal of Economic Perspectives found that the share of income going to the top 1 percent in America was higher than in other developed countries.
  • The rate of poverty in America remains stuck at the untenably high level of 15 percent. Among children, the rate is 22 percent.
  • A January poll by the Pew Research Center and USA Today found that “65 percent believe the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased in the last 10 years.”
  • A February poll by CNN/ORC International found that “more than six in 10 Americans strongly or somewhat agree that the government should work to narrow that gap, compared to 30 percent who believe it should not.”
  • A February I.M.F. paper pointed out the folly of such a tactic: “It would still be a mistake to focus on growth and let inequality take care of itself, not only because inequality may be ethically undesirable but also because the resulting growth may be low and unsustainable.”
  • The I.M.F. pointed out in its January paper that inequality could, in fact, be an impediment to growth: “There is growing evidence that high income inequality can be detrimental to achieving macroeconomic stability and growth.”
  • A December survey of several dozen economists by The Associated Press found that most believe that growing income inequality is hurting our economy.

Despite the facts, Blow assures us, as assuredly that Sam noted it would be a lovely day in his eyes, that “we can figure out a way to fix this.”  He cites a few I.M.F. ideas such as “means-testing benefit programs, improving access to higher education and health care for the less well off, and ‘implementing progressive personal income tax rate structures’ while ‘reducing regressive tax exemptions’.”  He also insists that those in charge (politicians, policy makers, etc.) need to find the “political will” to make for real change for the poor and, therefore, for our economy.

To Blow’s list, I would add several solutions.  Every baby and toddler should have a healthy and plentiful food supply for best learning and brain development.  I would add to the list generous maternity leave and flexible work schedules/situations for mothers of babies 0-12 months to allow for the social-emotional bonding and language development that happens around feeding time, most notably during breastfeeding.  I would add increased funding for and attention given to the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program, which was created in 2010 to improve health and developmental outcomes for children and families who reside in vulnerable communities through evidence-based voluntary home visiting programs.  When Blow’s list, my list and others’ solutions for ending the plight of the poor that has become so “stubbornly resistant to improvement,” according to Blow, are set in action, I believe we will begin to see true and lasting improvement in our economy.


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