Brain development in children: the impact of adversity

In the first years of life neurons in our brains form new connections at the astounding rate of 700-1000 per second – a pace that is not repeated again.

We have one chance to get it right. Yet there is so much that can threaten this process – all around the world young children are growing up in contexts of poverty, conflict, and food insecurity.

In spite of the advances in knowledge about how our brains develop and work, we know little about the combined impact of such risk factors on brain development in children. For example, what happens to the brain in the face of neglect, lack of nutrition and emotional stress? Does it matter when these risks are faced by the child – is it worse at 5 days, 5 months or 5 years?

A few months after Typhoon Haiyan, a  young child sleeps in a parent/baby-friendly tent, in the city of Tacloban.

A few months after Typhoon Haiyan, a young child sleeps in a parent/baby-friendly tent, in the city of Tacloban. Numerous risk factors – such as poor nutrition and exposure to violence – can impact on a child’s brain development during the early years of life.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2014-0249/Pirozzi

Brain development in children – the facts

  • In the 1st years of life the brain grows at the pace of 700 new neural connections per second, a pace which is never achieved again.
  • By 3 years of age, a child brain is twice as active as an adult brain.
  • It is early life experiences that determine the capacity of the brain.

What we know is that early stimulation, caregiving, attachment, bonding and creating safe contexts for children all have a positive influence on their brains and can help children grow, learn and thrive.

Given the super specialisation in the research world, the various risks to brain development are often investigated independently, leaving us unable to answer many important questions; for example does early stimulation offset the negative impact of nutritional deprivation?

Given that the first 5 years of life is when the foundation of the brain’s architecture is put in place, and that experience during this time is one of the strongest influences on this development, we need to understand better how these different influences interact to affect brain development and function.

To do this, UNICEF, will be convening meetings and consultations with neuroscientists in an attempt to bring together these different bodies of evidence. This will help us to understand the crucial interlinkages, which is in turn of great importance for UNICEF’s early childhood programming, and ultimately – the health and wellbeing of children around the world. I look forward to sharing more updates on this exciting area of work in the near future.

Pia Britto is the Senior Adviser on Early Childhood Development in UNICEF’s headquarters.

PLEASE NOTE: The opening paragraph of this post previously stated that 80% of our brain is developed in the first five years of life. This has been rephrased to reflect more accurately what matters for brain functioning.

UPDATE 25 April 2014: Listen to the experts from last week’s meeting on brain development in children, held at UNICEF’s New York HQ.

On Wednesday 16 April UNICEF hosted a meeting on ‘Understanding the Multiple Influences on Brain Development’ at UNICEF’s headquarters in New York. The meeting was not open to the public but will be covered on http://www.unicef.org

29 replies

  1. Very interesting. I look forward to the update on this important area of early childhood development. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks so much. The meeting was indeed fascinating. we shall be posting a blog on the main findings, so do stay tuned.

  2. Interestingly, we had our first meeting with a Neuroscientist, Ministry of Education IECCD officials and UNICEF’s staff on 16th April 2014., During the half day meeting, we reviewed different concepts of Neuroscience and its application and integration in to the IECCD professionals and teachers ongoing training. It is a work in progress and will share the final outcome on ICON. Best, Naqib Safi

    • Yes please do share. i would be interested in knowing who spoke at your meeting and what were the main findings. We shall be posting a blog with our findings too, so do stay tuned

  3. […] the Senior Adviser on Early Childhood Development in UNICEF’s headquarters wrote about “Brain Development in Children” on UNICEF Connect. I picked out 6 truths about infants brain development. You will find them […]

  4. Effect of different variables that impact on brain development have been investigated separately through research specialization. By conventional wisdom, a combination of individual variables should yield maximum impact on a child’s brain development, be it positive or otherwise. In a context of limited resources arising from complexities of natural disasters (hurricanes, droughts and food insecurity, floods, tsunamis) and ever increasing man-made disasters (Northern Nigeria, CAR, South Sudan, Arab Spring, Syria), understanding of the composite effect of various variables will guide development agents to focus on the high impact and most cost effective options. Looking forward to the outcome of this innovative forum.

    • You are absolutely correct. the brain is not a homogenous organ nor is it compartmentalized. rather the neurosystems of anatomy and chemistry for example demonstrate interlinkages in both development and function.

  5. We must realize to invest on educating mothers about these facts. Mothers are the one who are closest to the children in this age and influencing this age children in all development matters.
    Investment on one generation of mothers will give us all together a new generation of youth and so on……
    Support mothers to support the new generation – I know mother support group worked in many projects that we initiated –

    Fiaz

    • yes maternal health, well-being and education are vital for brain development of not only 1 but successive generations.

      • and fathers, too…. especially when the mothers are absent or cannot cope, for one reason or another. It’s about having a one-to-one relationship with a caregiver who is attuned to that baby, understands the baby’s needs and addresses them appropriately.

  6. Wow… this is most educating & informative at once. If only I’ll be there live to listen to the guess speaker on the childhood development. Please keep me posted on anything new. Learning as a continous process is powerful as against ignorance. Thank you.

    • thank you for your comments – yes the relationship between genes and environment is closer than we ever imagine – which means we have to work on creating positive enviroments for all children

  7. thank you for your excellent comment – yes the relationship between the environment and genes is closer than we ever knew earlier

  8. This is extremely important stuff. I agree with Fiaz we need to get this information out to parents – also professionals, baby product manufactures and retailers. It is so important for babies and young children to be given an opportunity to thrive and parents can only do this to the best of their ability if they know how to.

    • yes we do need to think about the most effective channels to reach parents and those who are the architects of children first experiences

  9. Thank you for sharing. The developments in neuroscience is enriching what we already know from the psychodynamic literature on attachment…it is an exciting time in child development. I wish our educators and policy makers could be made aware of this amazing work that informs our understanding of social and emotional well-being. Maybe then they would stop only reacting to the surface behaviors of our children in Barbados.

    • i agree. how do we make our science build political will is a big challenge that needs to be addressed.

  10. UNICEF’s work in psychosocial support is very important in times of war and in peace. As one presenter noted, our work should begin long before an emergency strikes because emotional health is replaced by survival needs in such contexts. Children everywhere are growing up in extreme political, economic, environmental and social stress. Even those in developed countries see the uncertainty on parents’ faces and have to deal with subtle aspects of neglect such as both parents working 16 hours a day, with no time to play with them in cold weather and in small apartments. I look forward to learning more about the tools we can use as parents and workers to engage and stimulate these children in ways so as to cancel out the insecurities they face on a daily basis. Many thanks to Pia and team for launching this conversation.

    • Juliana the reality of lives is so complex, isn’t it. the ways to bring this knowledge into our everyday interactions is what we need and with continued support from the science and practice communities we will get the tools

  11. Pia, excellent talk and important blog. Please keep the information coming. I think Juliana is asking an important question. Given the realities that many children face, how do we develop programmes that increase resilience? A child growing up amidst war, violence or in an institution, what do we do to make them more resilient….to become psychologically, spiritually healthy adults? What does the resilence studies say of those healthy adults that have come through such potential trauma in the first five years of life? Would be interesting to follow those children that have come through such an intervention to see what the long term impact is.

    • i agree the onus is now on us to take this into practice. we do have some approaches, such as care for child development and the ECD kit that unicef is implementing at scale for young children and families

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