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Save the Children Reports on State of World's Mothers

To commemorate Mother's Day on May 10, the international child welfare advocacy group Save the Children is issuing its 10th annual "State of the World's Mothers" report with recommendations for mothers and policy makers to help support early childhood development.

The 2009 State of the World's Mothers report says early childhood - the period from birth to age 5 - is the most critical period of growth and learning in a person's life. What happens - and what does not happen - during these earliest years can influence how the rest of a person's childhood, adolescence and adulthood will unfold. And that is why mothers play such a central role in preparing children to reach their full potential.

"There is nothing more important than a mother and a child; this is the first, initial and best partnership," says Judy Jerald, Save the Children's early childhood advisor. "And it's mothers who need to know how to educate their children, and that's what Save the Children around the world is trying to do - to help the mothers focus on what they can do with their children that will make them successful in school. We know also that the better a mother's education, the more likely that the child is going to have better health and better education themselves."

The State of the World's Mothers report examines early childhood care and development around the world and identifies some of the best and worst places to be a mother.

According to the report, Sweden tops the list of 158 countries. Niger is at the bottom, and the United States ranks 27th. Pablo Stansbery, Save the Children's senior director for early childhood development, explains the U.S. ranking.

"Part of it is the lack of providing parental leave of at least one year for children, providing some sort of salary reimbursement," he says. "The U.S. does not yet have a national plan with a priority for disadvantaged children. There are some, like Head Start, which reaches a lot but not a substantial amount. So these are just a few of the reasons the U.S. is ranking so low compared to some of what we define as 'best in class' countries."

The report says 68 percent of all American fourth-grade public school children are not reading at their grade level. It suggests the large numbers of children at risk of failure in school reflect a widespread lack of the care and support children need in their early years. The Save the Children report cites one estimate that substantial investments in children's development at the earliest stages could yield a 17 percent better annual return to society, in terms of improved class performance, reduced health care costs, higher workforce productivity and less crime.

Jerald says the U.S. Congress should act swiftly to make early childhood development a national priority.

"We know that other countries are doing it. We know it can be done. Certainly, if we look at Sweden and the Nordic countries, but even if we look at some of the less wealthy countries such as Cuba, Armenia, Cyprus and Azerbaijan. They have the political will. They are investing in their children and their youngest children, and that's exactly what the U.S. has to do as well."

The 10th annual State of the World's Mothers report says the future of humankind will be defined by how well mothers today are able to raise the next generation. Stansbery lists some of the report's recommendations for improving mother and child well-being.

"The first one is to really focus on better health care for mothers and young children. We want to provide coaching and information to help new mothers and fathers give their young children the best possible chance to succeed," he says. "We also want to expand early learning opportunities for children affected by AIDS, armed conflicts and natural disasters. These are critical for, again, getting children into school, staying in school and being successful in school."

Stansbery says Save the Children has high expectations for the Obama administration, especially since the new president has been stressing the importance of investing in early childhood development. Stansbery says so far, nearly $5 billion have been allocated from the government's economic stimulus package to support Early Head Start programs.

He hopes the administration will continue supporting early childhood programs outside the United States, as well. Investments in such programs, Stansbery says, will better serve America's national security by helping the world's mothers raise healthier, stronger children.