22 September 2016

[BLOG] For young children to thrive and help transform the future

It is estimated that 1 in 3 children under 5, in low and middle income countries, is not achieving their developmental potential. Early in life, because of lack of stimulating, nurturing, safe and responsive environments, poor nutrition, and exposure to poverty, violence and adversity, they are not realizing their cognitive, language and psychosocial capacities. These children are surviving but not thriving.

The first years of life are a remarkable window of time when the foundations are laid for the realization of human potential. Brain development begins shortly after conception and progresses at a very rapid pace through the first three years of life—the stage of greatest development and also the period when development is significantly influenced by the environment. In the first 1,000 days of life, neuronal development and brain circuitry are stimulated by positive experiences that shape brain capacity and inform the ability to process complex information, skills and tasks. This development begins during the fetal stage then accelerates rapidly upon birth. This possibility for development is not achieved again.

The brain is experience-dependent, it needs the positive enriched experiences to develop. Early healthy development requires 3 types of experiences: adequate nutrition; nurturing care; protection from stress and environmental toxins. Healthy early brain development depends on proper nutrition. Nutrients such as fatty acids, iron, vitamins and amino acids feed the brain. Nurturing care—stimulation, responsivity and positive relationships help spark the neural connections. Protecting the brain from the toxic stress of poverty, violence and adversity, buffers it from negative impacts. These positive experiences are supported by a range of interventions delivered pre-pregnancy and throughout birth and the newborn period, infancy and into early childhood.


Effective multi-sectoral programme interventions packages are feasible to be implemented at scale through the health, nutrition, education, child protection and social protection sectors. Once such package is UNICEF/WHO “Care for Child Development.” Through this approach every contact with caregivers and young children is viewed as an opportunity to strengthen families’ efforts to help their children grow and develop. The CCD package provides guidance to health workers, counselors and community service providers on how they can help caregivers to increase their ability to provide stimulation opportunities for children through play, communication and responsive care (including responsive feeding). It has been successfully implemented in a range of countries and contexts and evidence based trails have yielded significant positive results not just for the children, but also mothers, and the community. Early childhood development is one of the most powerful equalizers because it is one of the most cost effective poverty alleviation strategies. Economic analyses has shown that for every dollar invested in early childhood programmes that returns are upwards from seven-fold.

Despite the strong evidence in support of early childhood, and the recognition by the SDGs of the role early childhood development can play in transforming the world by 2030, there is a lack of coordinated efforts, political will and investment in early childhood development. Every Woman Every Child Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health (2016-2030), through its ‘Thrive’ component, provides a platform and roadmap to achieve the developmental potential of all young children.  By working together, we can help achieve the results of Agenda 2030 and support millions of young children achieve their potential leading to more equal, prosperous lives for generations to come.