The Importance of the First Years of Life

Father holds young child at doctor's office.

This brief is one in a series of six on key early childhood issues for state policymakers. The series is designed to assist new state leaders in promoting informed policy decision-making in states to give kids a healthy start in life.

The Issue

Early life experiences set the foundation for lifelong health and well-being. The relationships and experiences of children in the first years of life play a major role in how their brains and bodies develop. Infants and young children who experience supportive and positive relationships with parents and caregivers and grow up in safe and resource-rich environments build strong brain architecture and strong body systems that support their lifelong health.

Why It’s Important

Families across the United States are working hard to support the healthy development of their children and provide for their basic needs. However, many families are stretched thin trying to balance family and work needs while facing health, social, and economic challenges. Costs for necessities like housing, health care and early care and education have continued to rise, yet wages have stagnated for most workers over the last 40 years.

Economic pressures and emotional distress negatively impact the health of young children and their families, in the present and over time. While some stress helps children and parents build positive skills to overcome challenges and build resilience, unrelenting stress from poverty, racism and discrimination, and other factors such as maternal depression can negatively impact child development and family health. Data show that especially families of color and families in rural communities are highly impacted by poverty and the accompanying family stressors, which can impact their overall well-being.

Considerations for State Policymakers

Policies and programs that support young children and families are a good investment, often providing more than a dollar in return for every dollar spent. The programs can have direct impacts by improving the physical, behavioral, and emotional health of children and parents; supporting educational readiness among children; skill building for parents; and raising family income.

Policies and programs that support young children and families have also been shown to advance other state priorities like educational performance, economic development, reductions in crime, and lower spending on health care and special education services.

States play a unique role in designing, implementing, and funding policies and programs that enable young children and their families to thrive. State policymakers should consider the following to help children have a healthy start:

1.    Prioritize Investments in Young Children and Families so that they can build a foundation for lifelong health and well-being. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank concluded that an “underinvestment in children’s development is an important source of inequality and social mobility and can be improved by government policies that target childhood directly.” Direct investments in the health and education of young children—particularly those 0 to 3 years of age—and in programs that alleviate family economic hardship—can ensure children have a strong start and avoid health and social problems that limit their educational and economic opportunities later in life.

2.    Address the Needs of Children and Their Parents Through “Two-Generation” Approaches in policy design and program implementation. Successful two-generation approaches focus on improving family stability through interventions that account for the needs of children and the adults in their lives. Examples include physical and mental health care systems that attend to the family as a unit and policies that couple financial supports with adult education and training for families with young children. Designing health, education, and economic stability policies and programs in this way better meets the needs of families as a whole.

3.    Advance Policies and Programs That Benefit all Children and Families and Close Gaps in Well-Being. Many early childhood policies, such as public pre-kindergarten, can improve educational and social outcomes for all children while also reducing inequities for children in families with low incomes, those living in rural communities, and children of color. In addition, states can make targeted investments in policies and programs that serve families facing heightened challenges and requiring more intensive supports. For example, home visiting programs that help young first-time parents meet the health and developmental needs of their children can improve parenting practices and reduce child maltreatment. There is also strong evidence that nutrition assistance and tax credits for families with low incomes, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Earned Income Tax Credit, improve financial security and economic mobility.


About Ascend

Ascend at the Aspen Institute is a hub for breakthrough ideas and collaborations that move children and their parents toward educational success and economic security. Ascend takes a two-generation approach to their work—focusing on children and their parents together—and bring a gender and racial equity lens to their analysis. Learn more at