Zero to Three: A Crucial Period of Development with Lifelong Impacts

The first three years of life are critical in ensuring the future well-being of a child. Children grow and develop more rapidly during the first three years than any other time in their lives. During this rapid period of growth, the impact of poverty, hunger, inability to access healthcare and lack of quality child care options put babies and toddlers at risk, and continue to negatively impact them throughout their life.

Programs Addressing Poverty Address Only a Small Portion of the Need
Infants and toddlers are uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of poverty, which can be detrimental to their development. In 2019, Florida was ranked 42nd out of the 50 states for economic well-being, with almost 47% of infants and toddlers living in households with incomes less than twice the federal poverty line. One in five Florida children age 0-5 are in families at or below the federal poverty line (annual income less than $26,000 for a family of four). Young children living in poverty are more vulnerable to abuse and neglect, behavioral and socioemotional problems, physical health problems and developmental delays.

Programs are available to low-income Floridians to provide support for food, housing and other necessities, but often do not meet the full need. For example, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the program that provides cash assistance, only serves 8.3% of Florida families who qualify, much lower than the national average of 22%.

Hungry Babies Experience Lifelong Complications
Food insecurity has detrimental effects during the prenatal period. The chances of negative birth outcomes increase when pregnant women experience malnutrition or hunger. The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program serves pregnant women, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding mothers and infants and children up to age 5 who are low-income. In 2019 WIC reached 427,000 Florida mothers and babies, which is equal to only 66% of those that were eligible.

In total, one out of every five Florida children are food insecure. Chronic hunger harms brain development and can create life-long issues that can impact a child’s emotional responses, reactions to stress, learning disabilities, along with other types of medical complications.

Early Intervention is Key for Children at Risk of Developmental Delays
Access to screening and early intervention is essential to address potential developmental delays during the crucial brain development period in ages zero to 3. In Florida, only 16% of infants and toddlers received a developmental screening, and only 7% received IDEA Part C services, otherwise known as the Early Steps program – these are well below the national average. Florida’s Early Steps program used to serve most children at-risk of developmental delays by providing necessary services when they would make the largest impact. Today, the program has been weakened and primarily serves children with “significant delays or an established medical condition that will likely result in a delay.”

Pregnant Women, Infants and Toddlers Without Healthcare Access Face Negative Outcomes

Florida is worse than the national average in both babies with low birth weight and infant mortality rates, with Black mothers being extremely over-represented in both of these negative birth outcomes. Florida also has more mothers who went without prenatal care or only had it late in their pregnancy compared to the national average. Babies of mothers who do not receive prenatal care are three times more likely to have a low birth weight and five times more likely to die than those born to mothers who do get care.

In 2021 the legislature appropriated over $200 million to expand Medicaid funding for prenatal care for all women throughout the full term of pregnancy, including the completion of postpartum care. This is a step in the right direction but more needs to be done to ensure the health of pregnant mothers and babies.

In 2018, Florida was one of fifteen states that saw the number of uninsured children rise. 6.4% of babies and toddlers in the state are without health insurance. Children of color make up a significant portion of the uninsured population. Babies and toddlers without health insurance are less likely to see a doctor, receive preventative care, be up to date on vaccines and have their health needs met.

Young Children are Particularly Vulnerable to Abuse and Neglect
Children ages 0 to 3 make up almost 37% of children in out-of-home care in Florida. The youngest children in care spend 5% more time in care than older children. Unfortunately, many young children in the foster care system are victims of abuse or maltreatment. In 2018, 45% of children ages 0-4 in foster care in Florida were victims of maltreatment. Children age 0 to 3 routinely make up around 80% of child fatalities in the state, with inflicted trauma being the fourth highest cause of child death.

Babies and toddlers are extremely vulnerable to the effects of abuse and neglect, which can drastically impact their development. Childhood maltreatment has been linked to long-term and/or future health problems, reduced volume in overall brain size and/or functioning of the brain and attachment and social difficulties.

Quality is Crucial in Earliest Learning Environments
The quality of babies’ early learning experiences at home and in other care settings impacts how prepared they are for lifelong learning and success. Quality of child care begins with ensuring that well-trained and appropriately paid professionals care for and educate young children using an enriching curriculum in an equally stimulating environment. In Florida, only 26% of center-based child care programs and 8% of family child care homes are nationally accredited.

In Florida, the average cost of child care is $9,238 per year. Florida does not offer child care subsidy assistance to families above 200% of the poverty line. Only 5.1% of low- to moderate-income infants and toddlers are in subsidized child care. Almost 17,000 children were on the child care assistance waiting list in 2019. Without access to quality and affordable child care, parents are frequently forced to use unreliable caregivers for the infants while they are at work.


  • Increase WIC/SNAP benefits: Ensure a higher percentage of Florida’s low-income children have access to healthy and nutritious foods.
  • Add programs that support families as they move out of poverty: Financially punishing parents for working to support their families continues the cycle of poverty. In order to reach the goal of moving families away from needing government support, programs need to help move them toward their goals, not abandon them.
  • Invest in programs proven to provide good health outcomes: Healthy Start provides services to expectant and new mothers, increasing the likelihood of good birth outcomes. Kidcare provides health insurance for children 18 and under.
  • Refer young dependent children to Early Steps and return the program to its original intent: Return Early Steps to a preventative program rather than a reactive service. Require DCF to conduct an early needs assessment and to refer vulnerable young children (ages 0-3) who have contact with the child welfare system to the Early Steps program to provide children with critical early intervention services.


American Children’s Campaign Priority Bill Highlights

  • To be posted as priority bills are filed.

What American Children’s Campaign is Saying…

Additional Resources

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