Threats and Challenges for Developing Babies

From conception to toddlerhood most babies develop just fine. There are, however, genetic conditions and pregnancy complications over which a mother has no control, while there are other threats to the developing baby that can be completely avoided or ameliorated through early intervention. It is these latter environmental factors that are of particular interest when considering public policies and programs.

Abortion: The most obvious threat to an unborn child is abortion, a tragedy that can be avoided. There were 9,027 abortions performed on Missouri women in 2012 (most recent data available), according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. When including an estimate of abortions performed on Missouri women in the neighboring states of Illinois and Tennessee, the figure rises to 10,824. This is a significant decline from earlier years; in 1990, for example, there were an estimated 19,582 abortions (see chart). But even one abortion is one too many.

Infant Mortality: While Missouri is one of the leading states in reducing abortions, infant mortality rates remain high at 6.61% of 1,000 live births, which is worse than the U.S. infant mortality rate of 6.1% of 1,000 live births is not much better. In fact, 25 other developed countries do a better job of preventing infant deaths, according to one measure by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Finland, for example, has an infant mortality rate of only 2.3%. (See 2014 National Vital Statistics Report.) In another report the CDC points out the leading causes of infant death:

Disabilities and Developmental Delays:

Nationally, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 4% of children under 18 years of age have a disability. The Missouri Division of Special Education conducts a child find each year that provides a one-day snapshot of children receiving special education as of December 1. Last year 122,918 Missouri children ages 3-21 were receiving special education and almost 5,000 children from birth up to age 3 were receiving special services.

Some developmental delays are caused by genetic abnormalities, but others are triggered by environmental factors. Pregnant women who drink alcohol increase their child’s risk for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which can cause disabilities, disorders to the heart, kidney, bones and hearing, and behavioral problems.  After a child is born development delays can emerge for a variety of reasons. Violent shaking of a baby, for example, can impair brain development.

Living in a violent home can lead to serious behavioral problems as children suffer from anxiety and depression; see this powerful video.  Research suggests children exposed to domestic violence (mom and dad fighting) will lag behind in cognitive development; one study found that: “Children exposed to high levels of domestic violence had IQs that were, on average, 8 points lower than unexposed children.” Another study, summarized in The Atlantic, also found lower IQ scores.

Poverty is associated with factors that lead to developmental delays. A 2013 study by researchers at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis found that poverty in early childhood was associated with smaller amounts white and gray matter in the brain. Another study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found similar results. According to the researchers, the lagging brain development of poor children become apparent after analyzing hundreds of brain scans conducted soon after birth and continued until age 4.

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