The NCSL Blog


By Alison May

"An apple a day keeps the doctor away" may be an adage, but apples and other nutritious food really are important, particularly for infants and toddlers. Unfortunately, nutritious food can be expensive or difficult to find in many neighborhoods.

Child eating appleResearch has shown that in the first few years of life, a child’s brain develops a million new neural connections every second. We also know that the national food hardship rate, or the inability to afford enough food for you and your family, for U.S. households increased from 15.1 percent in 2016 to 15.7 percent in 2017. And according to the 1,000 Days website, and a newly penned report, good nutrition in the 1,000 days between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday sets the foundation for all the days that follow.

Good nutrition along with nurturing relationships and strong early learning experiences play important roles in promoting positive well-being in infants and toddlers.

In the United States, we draw distinctions between food insecurity and hunger. Most families in this country can avoid hunger by choosing cheaper, more filling types of food over costlier nutritious food. Lack of nutritious food is detrimental at any age, but particularly so for children birth to 3 years of age, due to the important brain development happening during this period. 

For infants and toddlers whose families may be among the approximately 40 percent of poor families experiencing food insecurity, the children are likely to be deficient in choline, DHA (fatty acid), folic acid, iron, iodine, zinc and other nutrients vital for health development. These nutrients each play a specific role in development and each are necessary in certain amounts and at specific times during the rapid brain development that occurs during the early years.

Federal programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC, and Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) help get nutritious foods in the hands of infants and toddlers.

  • The WIC program supports women and children with state grants for supplemental food, health care referrals and nutrition education. These services are available for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women and infants and children up to age 5 who are at greater nutritional risk.
  • The CACFP program provides nutritious foods that contribute to the healthy growth, and development of young children in child care settings and family or group day care homes. The program also provides aid for older adults.

Learn more about these and other programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services on NCSL’s website.

NCSL’s Feeding Hungry Children: A Guide for State Policymakers provides an overview of six federal child nutrition programs and steps state legislators can take. For example, legislators can raise awareness of WIC and encourage more collaboration among WIC agencies, health providers and social service agencies to reach more eligible women and families. Some states are reducing barriers to WIC by combining WIC applications with other social programs. Legislators can consider these and other examples as they think about supporting access to nutritious foods for infants and toddlers. 

ZERO TO THREE created the Think Babies campaign to make the potential of every baby a national priority. Funding partners for Think Babies include the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports the campaign’s public education aspects, and the Perigee Fund, which supports the campaign’s public education and advocacy aspects. Learn more about the campaign.

Interested in learning more about the importance of nutritious foods for infants and toddlers and their developing brains? Not sure where to start? Think Babies, a campaign of the national nonprofit ZERO TO THREE, will host a Tweet Chat in conjunction with Food Research and Action Center, 1000 Days, American Academy of Pediatrics, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Voices for Healthy Kids at 1 p.m. (EST) Oct. 29. Join the conversation by following @ZEROTOTHREE and using the hashtag #ThinkBabiesChat to participate. Remember you can always contact NCSL’s Early Care and Education team to further discuss this important topic in your state.

Alison May is a research analyst with NCSL’s Children and Families Program. She covers early care and education issues.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.