From the first moments after birth, we pay close attention to babies’ development. Right away, we’re told their length and weight. We fuss about how they react to diaper cream or mashed carrots, and whether they slept through the night. We mark their first tooth and first steps.

That’s because as parents, caregivers, healthcare professionals and educators, we know when a child has loving care and safe, stable and nurturing relationships in their first few years, we improve the likelihood of on-track development and mental health, and by extension, their chances to succeed in school, navigate childhood and adolescence, and flourish into adulthood.

So why can’t our leaders be just as invested in our children? For years, science has shown us how to support children in their early years, yet Congress has failed to maintain substantive investments in the programs that ensure optimal development.

At the end of 2021, Congress allowed the expansion of the Child Tax Credit to expire, after which childhood poverty more than doubled. And just last month, Congress plowed through a crucial deadline that allowed childcare funding to fall over a cliff, leaving thousands of providers struggling to keep their doors open and leaving millions of families vulnerable to losing access to childcare.

While it’s not as visible as that first tooth, decades of research tell us the first few years of life are the most important time for a child’s brain development. And the choices our country makes about how we care for babies — and support those on the frontlines of that caregiving — hold the power to chart the path of that child’s entire journey.

Early experiences shape a child’s developing brain, which grows faster during the ages of zero to 3 years than at any other point in life (forming more than 1 million neural connections each second!). Because babies are born ready to learn, with minds like sponges, soaking up the world around them, their brain development hinges on the quality of the attention and environment provided by their caregivers.

With stakes that high, failure to ensure access to high-quality childcare puts our nation’s babies and toddlers’ development and our collective future at risk. When children have access to high-quality early learning support, they enter elementary school with the tools they need for a lifetime of learning and engagement. When children have devoted adults looking after them every day, they get the positive, nurturing inputs they need to thrive, and caregivers can better catch, address and even prevent delays or disabilities.

Babies exposed to traumatic experiences — anything from experiencing violence to living through financial, food or housing insecurity — are vulnerable to developing mental health problems. An estimated 10 percent to 16 percent of young children experience mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. For children in poverty, that number is even higher at 22 percent. Access to high-quality childcare can help children avoid exposure to traumatic experiences. And if exposed, it can serve as a buffer, teaching coping skills and limiting the negative effect on long-term mental health challenges.

Though every baby may not need childcare outside the home, those who do should have access to the resources and support that will give them the best start in life. We only have a few years to ensure every child’s foundation is as solid as possible. For many children, families and communities, having access to high-quality, affordable childcare makes the difference.

We can’t afford to wait. We must all accept our collective responsibility for ensuring families have the support they need to help babies thrive. That means it’s time for our leaders to prioritize our nation’s children. As Congress continues to work on a budget agreement for next year, they must include emergency funding for childcare and restore the child tax credit.