Education begins in the womb.

Or to be more concise, a child's potential for learning can be affected for life by the factors that surround his prenatal development and birth.The United States has espoused an educational policy leading off with the statement that "By the year 2000, every child will start school ready to learn." That means the country has a big stake in healthy babies.

A recent report by the Education Commission of the States indicates there is a significant challenge to be met. According to the report, more than 450,000 American children enter the world each year with one big strike against them - learning deficits that could have been avoided.

Millions of kids - an estimated 12 percent of the school-age population - arrive at school eager to learn but hampered by physical or mental impairments that stifle their ability to absorb information as their more normal peers do.

In any normal population, some infants will be born with defects that interfere with learning. But in the United States today, far too many children are being subjected to prenatal abuse. They are victimized for life by unwise choices made by their parents.

Among the causes of widely recognized learning deficits related to pregnancy or early childhood are:

- Low birthweight. Babies who weigh less than 5.5 pounds at birth are at risk for sight and hearing impairments and other learning disorders. Teenagers and women who have poor health practices or receive inadequate prenatal care are at more risk of having low birthweight babies.

- Maternal smoking. Studies indicate that children of smokers tend to be smaller, lag in their cognitive development and are more subject to hyperactivity and inattention. The children of heavy smokers are more at risk than children of light smokers and both categories have more potential for educational problems than the children of non-smokers.

- Fetal alcohol exposure. About 40,000 babies are born each year with some effects related to the mother's consumption of alcohol. About 7,000 of them have the fetal alcohol syndrome, which can result in severe retardation. The remaining 33,000 have less intense symptoms, but may suffer from attention, speech or language deficits that compromise their learning.

- Fetal drug exposure. When mothers use "crack" or other forms of cocaine, heroin or amphetamines, they put their unborn babies at risk of early birth, low birthweight and smaller head circumference than their healthy peers.

- Lead poisoning. The most common pediatric hazard in the United States, lead affects approximately 14 million children in the United States. The metal causes nervous system damage that is particularly devastating up to age 6.

- Child abuse and neglect: In 1986, there were more than a million reports of sexual, mental or physical abuse of children. Sixty-nine percent of the victims were under age 5. Language difficulty is a pervasive result, along with behavioral and physiological problems.

- Malnutrition: A pregnant woman's use of drugs, alcohol or tobacco may constrict blood vessels that nourish an unborn fetus. Three to 10 percent of America's babies are thought to be affected.

Taken separately, any one of these factors may put a huge stumbling block in the way of a child when he begins his formal education. In most cases, unfortunately, the effects are cumulative. A combination of behaviors on the part of the parents, particularly the mother, multiplies the risks for the child.

Education of prospective mothers is an essential element in the solution. But education won't solve the problem unless each woman undertaking childbearing accepts a personal responsibility for providing a healthy "first environment" for her child.