NEW BRUNSWICK — A new offshoot of the National Institute for Early Education Research headquartered at Rutgers University, the Infant and Toddler Policy Research Center has been created to put a sharper focus on what New Jersey can do better to help children, specifically in their first three years of life, and support their parents and caregivers.

NIEER founder and senior co-director W. Steven Barnett, a Rutgers professor, said every year of a child's life matters, but there's a reason why the first few years are known as formative.

"Infant and toddler early learning experiences are crucially important," Barnett said. "They set a foundation for development over a lifetime."

Barnett said research in the field of early childhood education has been revealing more and more about just how impactful that time period can be, but what's not clear is how the process in general is influenced by public policy.

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To better understand that, he said, the ITC@NIEER is going to be taking a look at the different types of child care parents are choosing, passing that information to the policymakers, and hopefully unearthing some new findings.

Child care is a collaborative effort, often roping in grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors in addition to formal care arrangements, but a clearer evaluation of parents' distinct approaches is needed.

"We don't know a lot about whether all of that meets the needs of children and families, and how well," Barnett said.

One thing is for sure: Child care does not come cheaply, especially in New Jersey, and one of the ITC@NIEER's goals is to explore ways the Garden State can lower costs yet retain high quality.

That goes even for parents who choose to do the bulk of the rearing themselves.

"Infant and toddler care is expensive no matter how you do it, so if a parent takes the time out of the workforce, of course, that's expensive in terms of lost income," Barnett said.

And Barnett made the catch-22-type point that while the affordability of child care remains a problem, the providers themselves commonly do not make enough money to support their own families, and that can wind up affecting their job performance.

"Being a stressed caregiver is not good, either for the workforce, or for the infants and toddlers that they care for," he said.

The ITC@NIEER just held its first public webinar last week, and has already published research detailing the effects of COVID-19 safety protocols and low state subsidies for the child care industry.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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