Blog The biggest bang for your buck

The biggest bang for your buck

by Research Team

What if we told you that 90% of your child’s brain will be fully grown by the time she enters the formal education system?

That may come as a surprise to many, and rightfully so! We often associate education with school, and for most, school doesn’t start until kindergarten.

However, tons of research now shines a light on the reality that by time children enter kindergarten, roughly around the age of four, kids’ brains are nearly fully grown. The window of opportunity leading up to this milestone is often a wasted opportunity for parents and for schools to perpetually expose their little ones to as much knowledge as possible.

The scary reality is that as a nation, and as individual families, we’re paying a price for considering education to be a process that doesn’t begin right at birth.

How big is that price tag?

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the average cost to raise a child from birth to 21 was $245,340. Childrearing costs go up slightly each year as the child gets older but between birth and age four, the annual cost comes out to about $11,500.1 Here’s the breakdown:

  • Housing – 30%
  • Food – 16%
  • Transportation – 14%
  • Clothing – 6%
  • Healthcare – 8%
  • Childcare and Education – 18%
  • Miscellaneous – 8%

Childcare and education makes up almost a fifth of that budget! This is great but also slightly misleading.

Diving deeper into these numbers shows that about half of the families who took this survey reported 0% of their budget allocated to early development. Zero!

In the United States, only 30% of babies from 0-2 years old are enrolled in a formal developmental program. And by age three, that number only slightly increases to 40%. The number goes up to 65% of children by the age of four. But that’s a little too late. By four, children’s brains have already begun the “pruning” stage which means that their brains are destroying unused neurons and synapses to streamline the most useful connections.

What does this say about our ability to adequately allocate the timely resources needed for our children to be successful in life?
Relative to their foreign counterparts, American children are falling short. In 2012, the U.S. ranked 35th out of 35 of the top developed countries when it comes to enrollment in childcare and preschool before kindergarten.2 In the U.K., nearly 100% of 3-5 year olds are enrolled in some sort of educational program.

This is not to say that those countries have better parents! Instead, it highlights a broken system here at home that is overlooking such a crucial period in our children’s lives. But don’t take our word for it. Thousands and thousands of hours of research have shown that investments in early childhood education is one of the best things a society can do as a whole.

For example, one study highlighted that a high-quality program for young children living in poverty improves their educational performance, contributes to their economic development, helps prevent them from committing crimes, and provides a high return on taxpayer investment over their lifetimes.6

Another analysis from the President’s Council of Economic Advisors suggests expanding early learning initiatives would provide benefits to society of roughly $8.60 for every $1 spent, about half of which comes from increased earnings for children when they grow up.3

Yet another study estimates that after just eight years, a fully integrated and universal day-care system in the United States would pay for itself. By the year 2050, they project a combined return on investment to yield a total of $304.7 billion.4 Take a second to realize how enormous that is.

This should all make sense, right? Currently, we’re trying to solve problems with solutions that only address the surface level and provide an immediate fix. And we’re spending a lot of money trying to do so. Not just as families, but as a nation. By investing in our children from the moment they’re born, we’re improving not only their educational performance in the short-term, but their likelihood of success in the long-term.

Researchers have outlined three main theories that point to early childhood as a particularly important time to invest in children.2

First, investments made when children are very young will generate returns that accrue over a child’s entire life. Literally, it is the gift that keeps on giving! Since the benefits are realized the earlier in life that they are made, early childhood interventions are likely to generate more substantial benefits.

Second, given that flexibility and capacity for change in cognitive functioning and brain development is the greatest for young children, early investments capitalize on this ability.

Third, early investments will have a multiplier effect for enhanced development down the road. This means that whatever skills are necessary in kindergarten depend on the skills learned beforehand and so on. Therefore, under this ‘skill begets skill’ model, early investments in child development can enhance the productivity of future investments!

It only gets better. Investments in early childhood development also have amazing benefits for parents. Mom and Dad, high-quality, affordable child care can help you balance work and family responsibilities as well as increase your earnings potential by providing a nurturing environment that builds on the education your kid is already receiving at home! Studies have shown that providing better access to and lowering the cost of high-quality care can significantly increase the employment rates and income of mothers.3

So in short, early investments in education are not only the right thing to do from a developmental standpoint, but also from a financial one. Not only do you get to raise a smarter baby, but you save money while doing so!

Where does this leave us? We understand that it is really easy to get excited about this research and then fall short of acting on it. Societal change moves slowly—really slowly. But you as an individual, well, you can move fast. The sobering reality is that universal child care programs might not happen for quite some time. And if you’re a parent of a young one reading this right now, time is something you do not have. But luckily, you already have everything you need to raise a smart baby. It’s all about the interpersonal interactions. Babies and toddlers need grown ups to talk to them, using varied vocabulary and making eye contact.

At the end of the day, prevention is always better than remediation, and earlier is better than later. Meaningful, engaging interactions can start right now with nothing more than a book and some blocks. If nothing else, a simple investment of time and attention yields some seriously impressive results down the road. So get started engaging with your little one! It’s honestly the best thing you do can do.

About the Author

Research Team

The Starling Research Team is comprised of talented speech therapists, pediatricians, child development researchers, parents, and students from all over the world. If you share our passion for early education and a knack for turning hard research into engaging, relatable, enlightening stories, why not introduce yourself to us (with a few writing samples) via

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