Nearly half of young children in America live at or near the poverty level. Those millions of children are more likely to be raised in an environment of substance misuse, neglect, violence, and family turmoil, with limited access to food or clothing, ultimately causing long-term toxic stress. The impact poverty has on health creates a ripple effect that doesn’t stop at childhood. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) knows the damage poverty can do to a child’s mental, emotional, and physical well being and plans to increase its focus on early childhood interventions starting this year.

“You can’t just make up for losses in early childhood,” said the American Academy of Pediatrics President Dr. Benard P. Dreyer, who introduced a new AAP policy statement at the Fourth Annual NYS Pediatric Advocacy Conference. “If you miss out on early childhood development, it’s very difficult to catch up. Even small differences in income are related to brain structure.”

Children living in families below the poverty line are at risk for a flood of health disparities, including but not limited to: low birth weight, poor language development, chronic illness, poor nutrition, and injury. But the accumulation of dysfunction often puts the child in a constant state of stress, which impairs their brain’s ability to grow and thrive at a young age. The brain processes information by forming new neural connections, which are the basis of learning and memory. According to the Urban Child Institute, between birth and age three, the child’s brain grows to 80 percent of its adult volume. If neural connections made during this time are negative or not enough time is invested into helping the brain flourish, the child may suffer from lower cognitive function throughout his or her life.

This year’s AAP policy focuses on protecting brain development by investing in early childhood by strengthening and expanding wellness screenings, education programs for parents, and advocating the expansion of government benefits, like Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

These programs, designed to combat childhood poverty head on, have already made a difference in millions of children’s lives. In America, 1.17 million children live in families experiencing extreme poverty, which means each member of the family has $2 to spend each day. Without programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs, tax credits, or subsidies, an additional 2.38 million children would be living in extreme poverty.

According to the AAP’s new policy, published in the journal Pediatrics, early childhood intervention programs have the greatest health impacts by cutting down the effects of toxic stress. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, a child’s healthy brain development can become derailed by excessive or long-term stress. The first few years of life, a child’s brain makes 700 new neural connections every second, which provides a window of opportunity for parents to either capitalize or lose out on. By investing in children while they’re still young enough to reap the benefits, they have the opportunity to improve cognitive function and advance growth in all areas of their children’s behavior.

“Early childhood education is extremely important in combating childhood poverty,” Emma Olson, a social worker with a specialization in health and nutrition, told Medical Daily. “It helps break the cycle of poverty because you’re giving underprivileged children the resources to build their capacity at an age when their brains are beginning to form. Toxic stress can really impair the ability to manage emotions and behaviors and establish relationships that will affect them for the rest of their lives.”

Olson works at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House’s Early Childhood Center, a program that embodies the AAP’s new goals to start improving a child’s life as early as possible. The federally funded Center provides roughly 140 very low-income preschool children between the ages of about three to five years old, a full-day, year-round developmental, educational, and social experience. The preschool program caters as much to the child’s development as it does to their family.

Olson added: “We also provide resources for parents; some of these parenting groups give them the opportunity to support their own mental health and build social support, which is really important for people living in poverty.”

A team of teachers and social workers hold classroom meetings once a month, which is where they share with parents information about what the children are learning, update them on events, health screenings, and vaccinations, and provide them with information for other family services. Their most recent meeting was an interactive lesson in which parents were given tools to make home-made math games so they can incorporate math lessons at home — a luxury most low-income families cannot afford.

“So if we can provide a safe, nourishing environment with healthy food, good early childhood development and education, then we can really try to break that trajectory,” Olson explained. “We really try to tackle poverty from a lot of different angles, starting with the child and working in partnership with the family.”

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics. Poverty and Child Health in the United States. 2016.