The NCSL Blog


By Jennifer Palmer

Long before "Babies," a new docuseries from Netflix, brought early brain development and the miraculous minds of infants to television screens around the world, state legislators have been considering ways to ensure their youngest constituents begin life with the best opportunities to grow, learn and thrive.

Still from Netflix show BabiesIn the series, depictions of babies taking their first steps or bonding with a parent are sure to tug at viewers’ heartstrings, while the research on a baby’s developing brain, such as the formation of 1 million new neural connections every second from age 0-3, will be eye-opening for many.

2019 State Legislative Activity

To support legislators’ prenatal-to-three efforts, NCSL tracks state policies that support healthy infant and toddler development. Our Early Care and Education and Maternal and Child Health legislative databases track breastfeeding, child care quality, maternal mental health, home visiting services and more topics related to early childhood. In 2019, legislatures enacted at least 129 prenatal-to-three policies, and we’ve summarized them for you in this new report

Maternal Mental Health

Giving babies a healthy start includes addressing mom’s health. Depression during pregnancy is linked to preterm birth and low birth weight, while postpartum depression can lead to delays in cognitive, social and emotional development in infants and toddlers.

California, Colorado, Illinois and Texas are among the states that enacted legislation in 2019 to support access to mental health services for pregnant and postpartum moms. Other states, including Illinois, Maryland and Texas, are also evaluating and improving labor and delivery practices and procedures and ensuring pregnant women have access to health care coverage. As we noted earlier this year, nearly all states are taking steps to understand and address underlying issues related to maternal mortality. 

Safe, Stable and Nurturing Relationships

Infants and toddlers need and crave nurturing and responsive relationships with their parents and other caregivers. The quality of these relationships and early experiences literally shapes their brains and influences future social, cognitive and emotional competence.

Caring for infants or toddlers is challenging for most parents some of the time. For families experiencing unstable living conditions, financial struggles, addiction or teen parenting, the daily challenges are more pronounced and often require additional supports to ensure healthy child development. In response, many state legislatures are investing in evidence-based voluntary home visiting programs. In 2019, four states—Nevada, New Hampshire, New York and Oregon—passed legislation to expand or make voluntary home visiting more accessible.

Many legislators are also well-versed in the challenges parents of infants and toddlers face in accessing high-quality child care so they can work or continue their education. While most states are experiencing a child care shortage for all children, infant and toddler care is by and large the most expensive and least available.

In 2019, lawmakers in Colorado and Oregon enacted legislation to address these shortages. As we’ve noted in the past, many states are putting their federal child care dollars towards quality improvement measures for infant and toddler care.

Check back often for updates on NCSL’s Early Care and Education and Maternal and Child Health legislative databases. We’ll continue monitoring trends in prenatal-to-three policies long after viewers have moved on to the next program in their Netflix queue.

The current public health crisis has exacerbated many of the longstanding issues mentioned in this blog for both parents and infant and toddler care providers. NCSL has compiled numerous resources on health and human services as they relate to COVID-19. More information on child care and COVID-19 can be found in our recorded webinar and podcast.


Jennifer Palmer is a policy associate in NCSL's Children and Families Program.

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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.