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Dr. Mary Catherine Bateson Headshot
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Rally4Babies? If We Don't, Who Will?

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Want to do something really important, that will have a real impact, and cost you nothing except lending your voice? Then join Soledad O'Brien, Kathleen Sebelius, Arne Duncan, Jennifer Garner and Alma Powell this afternoon for the Rally4Babies: Learning Happens Right from the Start. You don't even need to leave your home, just power up your computer and take part! (Or, if you can't take part in the live event, you can sign a petition and still make your voice heard.)

This virtual event aims to awaken Americans to the astonishing importance of the early weeks and months of life, when infants encounter the world with wonder and rapid learning that lays the foundation for all the curiosity and discovery that lies ahead. We need to rally Americans around early learning policies that focus specifically on babies and toddlers. The child advocacy group, Zero to Three, is sponsoring the rally along with more than a dozen co-sponsoring organizations.

But why would a country as wealthy and progressive as America need such a rally?

So glad you asked.

If fancy swings, coordinated linens, and designer strollers are the measure of how much America loves its babies, we must really love them.

But if investments in high-quality early learning and care are among the measures, well, maybe not so much. At least not as much as other developed countries.

In fact, according to a UNICEF study released this past April, the U.S. ranks 26th out of 29 nations when looking at five dimensions of child well-being: material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviors and risks, and housing and environment. The report notes that, "Overall, there does not appear to be a strong relationship between per capita GDP and overall child well-being."

How can this be? The report, Child well-being in rich countries: A comparative overview, offers a sobering portrait of how America's children and babies are faring. When it comes to infant mortality rates, Iceland has the fewest deaths of infants under 12 months of age: fewer than four deaths per 1,000 live births. By contrast, the U.S. ranks far down the list (26th), with nearly seven deaths per 1,000 live births.

We also bottom out in terms of low birth weight (5.5 pounds or less at birth). Of the 29 countries studied, only four countries -- the U.S., Portugal, Hungary and Greece -- had a low birth weight rate exceeding eight percent.

Immunizations? The U.S. ranks 23rd.

Given our poor showing in the health and safety category, we shouldn't be surprised that the U.S. also limps along in the rankings for educational well-being. With regard to preschool enrollment, we finish in 27th place; fewer than 75 percent of our young attend preschool. That compares to a 100 percent preschool enrollment rate in France.

Perhaps our low performance in preschool enrollment helps account for our disappointing scores for educational achievement by age 15. In this rating, we're running in the middle of the pack. The average score for American students taking the Programme of International Student Assessment was less than 500 on a 560 point range. Students in Canada were way ahead of us, ranking second in the study, with an average score of 524.

There's no question that we really do love our babies and our children. But it is equally true that we need to make far greater investments in their well-being -- beginning the moment they come into this world. And changes must begin with policies and programs that support both our babies and their families.

There are three excellent reasons to rally for babies.

1. No national paid-leave policies. This year, for the first time, the majority of American women became the breadwinners in their families, according to a survey conducted by Prudential Financial. Even in easier economic times, few American mothers now have the option of staying at home full time. Yet private and public policies have not changed to reflect that major cultural shift. Because we have no national paid-leave policies, many women are forced to return to work within weeks of giving birth, with precious little time to form the close maternal bond that is crucial to a child's well-being.

2. Lack of affordable quality infant care. Any first-time parent understands the anguish of handing their child over to someone else to care for while the parents work. Quality infant care is hard to find and afford. Quite often, parents turn to their parents, other relative caregivers, or friends to provide care. We are grateful for their readiness to help, but wish that all family caregivers were supported by a network of open-hearted support. This would make family members not only more effective but more fulfilled in their tasks, aware of what is unfolding before their eyes instead of barely coping. This past April, the U.S. Census Bureau released a new white paper, Who's Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2011. Among its findings was the fact that American families with children under the age of five spend an average of $9,300 each year for child care, and the costs keep rising. Moreover, "families in poverty spent a greater proportion of their monthly income compared to families at or above the poverty level."

3. Early Head Start still reaches less than 5 percent of eligible children in poverty. Research has confirmed that infants and toddlers who do not attend a high-quality learning program, such as Early Head Start, enter kindergarten behind their peers. Many end up dropping out of school before graduation and continuing the cycle of poverty.

Convinced? Then at 2:00pm ET today, join the Rally4Babies and give our decision makers a piece of your mind. Let them know America loves its babies and wants them to grow into the best adults they can be!

Dr.s Lombardi and Bateson are the co-chairs of Generations United's Seniors4Kids
Butts is the executive director of Generations United