The life-course perspective in particular is out of the public eye. Looking more deeply into research on the effects of early life, it is possible to estimate that roughly half of our health as adults is programmed from the time of conception to around two years of age. The importance of these “first thousand days” is the subject of increased interest and study, and explains a lot about the difficulties of focusing on short-term interventions to improve health. Countries with healthier populations structure this formative period by making it easier for parents to parent. In practical terms, this means that in modern societies where most people work outside the home, providing paid parental leave is the single most effective social intervention that can be undertaken for improving health. It can be thought of in the same light as public sanitation systems that make water safe to drink. We all benefit, rich and poor alike, from clean water, from sewage treatment, from immunizations, and other public health measures.
Everyone in a society gains when children grow up to be healthy adults. The rest of the world seems to understand this simple fact, and only three countries in the world don’t have a policy, at least on the books, for paid maternal leave—Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and the United States. What does that say about our understanding, or concern, about the health of our youth?
Kaleem Caire is working on an early childhood program in Madison.