What’s the most important thing children have? Their brains. And yet, we’re not caring for children’s brains the way we care for their bodies. This should concern all of us – including business leaders.
The first 1,000 days of life – from conception to age three – open a critical and singular window of opportunity. During this period, children’s brains can form 1,000 neural connections every second – a once in a lifetime pace never matched again – and these connections are the building blocks of every child’s future.
The science is clear about what a young brain needs to make those connections:
- Stimulation from the earliest possible moment: Children who are read to, talked to, sung to, played with, are not only happier today. They will have better cognitive capacity – and a better chance to live a fuller, more productive life. A 20-year study released in 2014 showed that children from disadvantaged households who received high-quality stimulation at a young age grew into adults who earned an average of 25% more than those who did not receive these interventions. And yet, it’s estimated that governments worldwide spend less than 2% of their education budgets on early childhood learning programmes.
- Nutrition: In the first years of life, a child’s brain consumes between 50-75% of all energy absorbed from food and good nutrition. A child who does not receive the nutrition he or she needs is at risk of stunted cognitive, as well as physical, development. And yet, around the world, at least 150 million children suffer from stunting and millions more are at risk from poor nutrition.
- Protection: Violence, abuse, neglect and traumatic experiences produce high levels of cortisol – a hormone that triggers the flight-or-fight response to danger. When cortisol levels remain high for too long, they produce toxic stress, which limits brain connectivity in children. Yet around the world, millions upon millions of children are living through the horror of violent conflicts and other emergencies. An untold number are experiencing violence and abuse in their homes.
- Exposure to air pollution: This can break down critical barriers in a child’s brain, leading to the loss and damage of neural tissue. Around the world, around 30 million children live in areas where the air is toxic, exceeding international limits by at least six times.
Stimulation, nutrition, protection from both violence and pollution, all shape children’s futures – and affect the futures of countries, economies and, indeed, our common world.
Despite this, some 250 million children under five years of age in low and middle-income countries are estimated to be at risk of poor development because of extreme poverty and stunting.
What happens to those children who have been denied these critical advantages in their earliest days? And what happens to their societies? When children miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we, as a global community, are perpetuating intergenerational cycles of disadvantage and inequality. Life by life, missed opportunity by missed opportunity, we are increasing the gap between the haves and the have nots.
These failures come at a great cost to all of us. A cost measured in poor learning, lower wages, higher unemployment, increased reliance on public assistance and intergenerational cycles of poverty that weigh down economic and social progress for everyone.
Working together, we – governments, international organizations, civil society, the private sector – must find ways to invest in programmes targeted at the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, focused on nutrition, stimulation, early learning, and protection from violence.
Last spring, UNICEF, the World Bank and other partners launched a new alliance to focus greater attention on the importance of early childhood development and to drive greater action to reach the children at greatest risk. The Early Childhood Development Action Network is built around generating the political will, investment and local demand for early childhood development.
This is an excellent opportunity for global businesses to join governments, NGOs, academics, scientists and parents and caregivers to give this issue the profile, commitment and – most importantly – the targeted investment it deserves.
It’s also an opportunity for businesses to consider how to support early childhood development programmes in their own operations – from policies that give parents more time to support their children’s development; to early childhood development facilities in their workplaces and beyond, especially in the communities in which they operate.
We cannot fail tomorrow’s citizens, tomorrow’s consumers, tomorrow’s workers, thinkers and innovators, for their abilities will drive tomorrow’s businesses. Their productivity will fuel tomorrow’s economies and their capacity to contribute will shape tomorrow’s societies.
Together, we can do more than shine a spotlight on the importance of early childhood development. We can commit to action.
For children. For a more equal world. For all of us.
Anthony Lake is the Executive Director of UNICEF.