A billion things happened on the way to your brain ...

We at First 5 Santa Barbara County have been spending a lot of time talking about babies’ brains lately.

“Why?” you might ask.

Well ... I’ll tell you.

Babies’ brains are super cool! In the space provided in this column, I cannot even begin to explain how amazing they are.

I don’t have enough space to explain the critical role parents play in making sure babies’ brains grow and develop to their full potential during the earliest years of life.

I also don’t have enough space to explain how it is in our own self-interest, whether we have kids or not, to support children and families in these critical early years.

Unlike other mammals, our brains are not yet fully formed when we are born. For example, for a human to be born with the same level of brain development as a newborn chimpanzee, mothers would have to be pregnant for 18-20 months.

In all my work with fantastic moms, I have yet to meet one who would sign up for that.

When we talk about brain development in the early years, it is not about growing brain cells. We are each born with about 86 billion brain cells, about as many as we will have for the rest of our lives.

Instead, brain growth in the early years is focused on the connections that form between brain cells, allowing the different parts of our brain to communicate.

This highly complex wiring — called synaptic connections — controls everything about us. Everything we see, hear, think, smell, touch and taste is controlled by the connections that form between the cells in our brains.

Let’s take a break from all this crazy brain science and think about a newborn baby deer. Ooooooohhhh ... how cute.

A few hours after birth, that thing is up and walking. It has to, otherwise the big bad wolf will come eat it for dinner.

When a deer is born, its brain has, for the most part, finished growing.

Not humans. We depend pretty much completely on adults to care for us during the first five years of life. Fully 80 percent of the brain is developed by age 3, 90 percent by age 5.

This gets us to what I think is the coolest part of brain development, and it poses serious questions about where we invest taxpayer and philanthropic dollars to most effectively support children:

Science tells us that the most effective factors influencing healthy brain development are the interactions and relationships infants have with caregiving adults in their lives and the hopefully positive, nurturing environment around them.

Why are parents so important for babies’ brains? They literally build them.

But what happens in a society like ours, where in most cases, both parents have to work in order to make ends meet?

What happens in a community like ours where 20 percent of infant to 5 year olds live in poverty and their families lack the most basic resources and support they need to effectively nurture their child’s brain growth and development?

These questions, and potential solutions, drive our daily work at First 5.

We have a pretty cool job. We get funding from sales taxes on cigarettes and we invest those dollars in local programs and strategies to support children and families in the first five years of life.

Our vision is that all Santa Barbara County children be healthy, safe, and ready for kindergarten.

Santa Barbara County families struggle to find quality preschool and child care that is affordable. The need for care cuts across almost all income levels, especially for infants and toddlers.

In our county, about 19,000 children 0-5 need child care each year. Only 10,177 licensed spaces exist to serve them. Even more alarming is that we have only 1,500 licensed spaces available to serve the 6,500 infants and toddlers needing quality care.

Why should these numbers concern you, especially if you don’t have children?

Many parents need reliable child care in order to be productive workers, forming the foundation of our local economy.

Thinking long term, the interactions and nurturing that parents provide are the most important factors in developing their child’s brain. This makes quality child care critical. Child care providers aren’t glorified babysitters, they are standing in for parents while they are at work. They too are building babies’ brains.

You probably pay taxes. Now consider ... as a society, when do we make our biggest investment in children? Right as this amazing brain growth period is ending — as children turn 5 and enter free, universal kindergarten.

In essence, we are investing the vast majority of public dollars — your dollars — supporting education after the brain has done most of its growing ... after the foundation for each child’s success in later life has, in many ways, already been laid. Or not.

At First 5, we want to call attention to emerging brain science, the results of longitudinal studies on what works, local critical gaps and what is working in our community to fill them. We want these facts to influence how our community invests taxpayer and philanthropic dollars to most effectively support children and families.

If we fail to give children what their brains need to develop in the earliest stages of life, we will, in many cases, have to invest in remediation programs to support children who did not have the support they needed in the early years. These remediation strategies are usually marginally successful and much more expensive compared to investing in children prenatal through age 5.

This is an exciting time for those of us who work in the field serving 0-5 year olds. Not only has brain science shown how important our work is, but years of social science have shown which strategies actually work. We at First 5 have been lucky to invest in a powerful, though underfunded, network of local agencies, nonprofit organizations and experts leading the way in this field.

There are amazing organizations and collaborative approaches in our community providing direct service to children and families. But they need help.

In the coming months this column will highlight these local programs, strategies and leaders. We will emphasize how each of us can step up and play a role in supporting children and families in the earliest, most important years of their development.

Click here for more information about First 5 Santa Barbara County.

— Ben Romo is executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County. Click here to read more columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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