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Clinton Announces New Infant, Child Care Funding Initiatives

By Elizabeth Shogren
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

It was no doubt the first time in U.S. history that an American president has sat in the ornate East Room of the White House to soak up four hours of baby talk.

Thursday, President Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, invited some of the country's premier experts in child development to the executive mansion to review dramatic new findings on the way small childrens' brains develop and to discuss the implications for public policy and parental care.

The neurobiologists, physicians and other specialists in early child development described the research showing how quickly the brains of babies develop after birth, creating trillions of neural connections that either flourish or die off in response to experience. The vast majority of these synapses are formed during the first three years of life.

"Experience is essential for brain wiring," Carla Shatz, professor or neurobiology at the University of California, Berkeley, as she explained why it is essential for parents to touch, talk and read to, sing for and otherwise nurture and stimulate their babies.

Dr. Patricia Kuhl, head of the speech and hearing sciences department at the University of Washington, stressed that babies' brains are busy coding and preparing for language well before they can speak any words, putting a responsibility on parents and child-care givers to talk to newborns. "When we speak to our children something is happening," she said. "Infants are born to learn. Our role is to be good partners in this learning process."

"This research has opened a new frontier," Clinton said. "Great exploration is, of course, not new to this country. We have gone across the land, we have gone across the globe, we have gone into the skies and now we are going deep into ourselves and into our children. In some ways, this may be the most exciting and important exploration of all."

During the conference, Clinton unveiled some initiatives to focus federal money and resources to better meet the needs of infants and pre-schoolers.

He announced a Justice Department initiative called "Safe Start," based on a program in New Haven, Conn., that trains police officers, prosecutors, and parole officers in child development so that they are better equipped to handle with sensitivity cases that involve children.

He also outlined a plan to use the military's experience running nurseries to improve civilian day-care services. He directed the military's child development programs, which have a reputation for high quality, to share their expertise with other groups involved with child care.

Improving child-care quality is particularly critical at this time, he said, because more than a million more infants and small children are expected to need child-care services as their mothers go to work as a result of new welfare laws.

Although the new laws included $4 billion more for child care, child advocates express concern that adequate low-cost, high-quality day care does not exist for the children whose parents will be forced to work under welfare reform.