Wyoming ranks toward the bottom nationally for early-childhood health and development, according to a new report measuring 60 indicators that affect the well-being of babies and toddlers up to age three.
Myra Jones-Taylor, chief policy officer for the group Zero to Three, said Wyoming is doing a good job making sure kids have access to Early Head Start.
She noted Wyoming's high uninsured rate for infants and toddlers could be improved if the state were to expand Medicaid coverage.
"Medicaid expansion is very important," Jones-Taylor said. "We know that in states that have expanded Medicaid, babies are doing better overall than those states where they haven't had Medicaid expansion."
The report found 45 percent of the nation's children are living in poverty or near it, which Jones-Taylor said limits their ability to be successful later in life. Nearly one in four Wyoming kids lives in a family that can't always afford to pay for basic meals.
Wyoming lawmakers have argued that expanding Medicaid could put the state on the hook for coverage if the Affordable Care Act implodes, and say lower revenues from oil and gas production limit the state's ability to invest in social programs.
Jones-Taylor recognizes that all states face budget challenges. But she's convinced the question really ought to be, "How can we afford to not invest in infants and toddlers?"
"There is no smarter investment, for a state or for our country, than investing in infants and toddlers, and the early-childhood development of our next generation of workers, of leaders," she added.
Some solutions don't require big investments. Just 29 percent of Wyoming parents read to their babies on a daily basis, according to the report, compared with 38 percent nationally.
So, picking up a book or just telling a story can have a big impact.
"And it's something parents can do today," she stressed. "This is so important for young children's academic performance later on. Early literacy skills, even early numeracy skills, are linked to parents and caregivers reading to their children every day."
Jones-Taylor said she hopes Wyoming parents will look at the State of Babies 2019 report online, and then talk with elected representatives about ways to make sure all children get the support they need.