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New Jersey ranks in the second tier out of four, alongside 12 other states, in the State of Babies Yearbook: 2020, released Thursday by Zero to Three, a national early childhood development nonprofit.

The top tier is made up of 11 states, mostly close Northeastern neighbors of New Jersey like Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Advocates for Children of New Jersey is one of Zero to Three's "Think Babies" state partners, and ACNJ president and CEO Cecilia Zalkind said New Jersey has been rated above average in each of three policy areas measured in the two-year history of the Yearbook so far.

Those areas, according to Zero to Three's research, are the things babies most need: good health, strong families, and positive early learning experiences.

The Garden State consistently beats national averages for each early learning metric and also puts up good marks for strong families, but New Jersey babies' health, while good compared to the rest of the United States, could improve, according to Zalkind. She said the first three years of a child's life are critical to the development of the brain and overall health.

"We also have far more children in this age group who are covered on health insurance, but we see a decline in vaccinations, which is problematic," she said.

On the subject of vaccinations, Zalkind said that although a vaccine is at the top of most New Jerseyans' minds with regard to COVID-19, the pandemic itself has prevented many regular medical procedures from being scheduled, and children have not been immune to that, so to speak.

She said vaccinations have also been trending downward in ACNJ's annual Kids Count.

The statistics in the State of Babies Yearbook were compiled before the pandemic began.

"One of the impacts of COVID is that families have not been accessing routine health care, and vaccinations have been delayed and in some cases, children have not received them," Zalkind said. "I'm very worried that there'll be a setback because of COVID. I think the impact on child care has yet to be measured completely."

New Jersey's mortality rate in infants less than 1 year old has improved, according to Zalkind, but mortality among black infants in New Jersey still ranks near the bottom nationally.

First Lady Tammy Murphy's "Nurture NJ" campaign has shed at least some light on this racial disparity in the last several years.

As for early learning, Zalkind said the state's policies are ever-changing, we are receiving more federal and state funding, and access to the Early Head Start program, which she said is the highest-quality educational offering for children up to age 3, is better than in most other states.

However, that rate of eligibility, even in New Jersey, is estimated only at 11 percent, and further expansion of educational investments may be halted indefinitely due to the fight against COVID-19.

"While by comparison we are doing well, I think we can do much better for more children in Early Head Start in our state," Zalkind said.

One positive Zalkind is looking forward to: the statewide reopening of child care facilities, coming up on Monday, June 15.

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