America’s very youngest citizens are hardly immune from the inequities exposed —and, in some cases, worsened — by the pandemic. And for infants and toddlers, the consequences could be particularly long-lasting given how crucial this period of development is, according to a new report released by ZERO TO THREE, an early childhood nonprofit. Members of this age group have always faced drastically different opportunities to grow and flourish based on where they live and their demographics, but these disparities became more pronounced during the pandemic, according to The State of Babies Yearbook 2021, which looked at dozens of data sets spanning health, education and family welfare. Among the areas where gaps have widened: regular pediatrician visits, maternal mental health and food insecurity.

“The pandemic has been painful for all of us, but it didn’t need to be so devastating for babies, toddlers, and their families,” said Myra Jones-Taylor, chief policy officer of ZERO TO THREE in a statement. “Because our nation has ignored the needs of young children for decades, COVID-19 was free to wreak havoc on the conditions that contribute to our babies’ development and our families’ stability.” This was even more pronounced for Black and Brown babies, and those from low-income families, she added.

As of 2019, when much of the report’s data were collected, more than half of babies in the country were children of color. While 18.6 percent of infants and toddlers nationally lived in poverty, that rate jumped to nearly 40 percent for American Indian/Alaska Native babies and more than 34 percent of Black infants and toddlers. American Indian/Alaska Native and Black babies and toddlers were also more likely to live in a family with no working parents. The report also included data from the Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development Early Childhood Household Survey, or RAPID-EC, which looks at the state of families with young children during the pandemic.

Brain development is most rapid in the first five years of life, meaning the well-being of infants and toddlers is particularly important. Children who are exposed to toxic stress and traumatic experiences — including those that can occur from living in poverty, having a parent with mental health challenges and experiencing hunger — can suffer from life-long detrimental effects. These experiences can change the brain’s architecture and have been found to correspond with health problems down the road, including depression, heart disease and diabetes.

Read the full article about early childhood by Jackie Mader at The Hechinger Report.