Opinion » Viewpoint

Saving the Children

Early information for mothers in poverty can make a big difference in Memphis’ quality of life.

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Memphis and Shelby County are making enormous strides. Crime is dropping. Grant funds to drive results-oriented teaching are flooding into our schools. The enormous Shelby Farms Park has broken ground on the Woodland Discovery Playground — a world-class bio-recreation center — and the ribbon-cutting on the greenline is but months away.

But all is not well in Shelby County. Consider this snapshot of 15,167 children born here in 2006;

• More than half these children were born into families with incomes below the national poverty line;

• In fact, 6,554 were born into dire poverty;

• Children born into poverty or to unwed mothers confront more problems — such as lower educational success and increased behavioral risks — than their counterparts in middle- or upper-class nuclear families;

• Children born into poverty have far less exposure to vocabulary and tactile/texture enrichment, which encourages brain development.

What happens in a child's early life — from conception to age 3 — largely determines how successful he or she will be in school and, by extension, professionally. This is because a significant portion of the human brain develops during that time. Scientists recently have learned even more about how important the early years can be.

A baby is born with more than 100 billion brain cells. Some of these cells are already connected to other cells at birth. These connections regulate the heartbeat and breathing, control reflexes, and regulate other functions needed to survive.

But much of the brain's wiring does not happen until after birth. In the first months and years of life, brain cells form connections in many parts of the brain. These connections are the complex circuits that shape our thinking, feelings, and behaviors later in life.

The future success of our city, in terms of our capacity to excel through our schools, institutions, and corporations, hinges in large part on what our children encounter between the time they are born and the time they reach their third year. Greater academic success will pull crime rates down even further; academically engaged students from nurturing prenatal and neonatal environments are less likely to be truant or criminally involved.

Unfortunately, a number of mothers in Memphis often do not know about the proper care they must take of themselves in order to ensure the health of their babies. Many have no knowledge that they are even pregnant, with some mothers not knowing they are going to give birth until the moment the child is being born.

This is alarming. Expectant mothers who do not know they are expecting do not take proper care of their bodies. The brain's ability to develop neonatally hinges on whether it receives the proper nutrients. High levels of stress, poor diet, alcohol, and drugs all harm the health of an unborn child. Fetal alcohol syndrome and infant mortality remain major challenges that cripple our community's health and, by extension, our economic potential.

Only half of the mothers who are born into poverty read to their children regularly, research shows, and only one out of three children will enjoy reading, playing peek-a-boo, story-telling, and other crucial learning activities with a family member. Too many of our children aren't getting the stimulation they need for healthy brain development, which ensures they will live to their potential.

The Urban Child Institute hosts training for citizens, including child-care providers and concerned Memphians, to learn the most current research about the brain, practices that support early brain development, and implications for parents and for young children in Memphis.

For more information, please visit theurbanchildinstitute.org.

Arnetta Macklin is vice president of senior programs at MIFA.

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