Neuroscience is redefining Early Childhood Development

Science is changing the way we think about development policy and practice when it comes to young children, radically altering our definition of early childhood development and what we do to ensure that every child has the best start in life.

In the first few years of life, children’s brains develop at an unprecedented rate. This crucial period lays the foundation for the rest of their lives and can set a path towards creating more sustainable societies.

No one disputes that food and nutrition are vital for a baby’s health and welfare. We can see the effects that hunger and malnutrition have on infants and young children. Their growth is stunted. Physical and mental development lag. Their chances of learning and leading a productive life are threatened.

A couple in Bangladesh attend to their newborn child.
A couple in Bangladesh attend to their newborn child. © UNICEF/BANA2014-00767/Mawa

Indeed, few can hear the cries of a hungry baby and not feel the importance of food. But what about stimulation? And a sense of security? How about love? Deprivation that stems from lack of care and nurture, exposure to domestic violence, abuse, and the effects of living through war can have just as detrimental an effect on brain development as a lack of food.

We now have evidence that demonstrates the important role these environmental factors play in determining young brain development.

As UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake and World Health Organization Director-General Dr Margaret Chan state in the issue of The Lancet published today: “The debate between nature and nurture as determinants of early child development is over. Today we understand that the two are inextricably linked.”

Their article lays out the effects of toxic stress and the particularly pernicious role it can play for millions of the world’s most vulnerable children. These two influential advocates argue that the link between nature and nurture, during this crucial phase of human development, has significant implications for policy and humanitarian development.

Young children take part in classes at a pre-school in Fumba,  Zanzibar, Tanzania
Young children take part in classes at a pre-school in Fumba, Zanzibar, Tanzania. © UNICEF/ UNI161988/Holt

As I see it, we are in the midst of a revolutionary shift in the way we think about brain development. It is increasingly clear that it is both our genes and our interactions with the world that shape our brains and consequently contour our futures.

This is especially true in early childhood when neurons form new connections at a rate of 700 to 1,000 a second. At this point in a child’s life, nutrition and good health are most critical. But so too is caring, stimulation and good parenting – especially for children faced with multiple adversities of violence, disaster and poverty.

Lake and Chan point out that the potent mixture of environment and biology demands practical action for those of us who believe in protecting the rights of the world’s most disadvantaged children.

They outline recommendations including:

  • Focusing on early interventions that start with prenatal care;
  • Ensuring that policies and interventions involve health, nutrition, high-quality caregiving and protection;
  • Including brain development in efforts to design effective programmes.

One way UNICEF and the WHO are using this emerging knowledge to inform practice is the Care for Child Development programme. The programme supports parents to interact with their children, encouraging them to be responsive, and to stimulate language and learning. It also provides information about good nutrition.

Six-month-old Maniratou, held by her mother, Habsatou Salou, smiles after a nutrition screening at a health centre in Niamey, Niger.
Six-month-old Maniratou, held by her mother, Habsatou Salou, smiles after a nutrition screening at a health centre in Niamey, Niger. © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0156/Quarmyne;

This new evidence has serious implications for the way the investment case is built for early childhood development programmes and will help inform new evidence-based policy and programming decisions. UNICEF is working with leading researchers to find even greater connections between science and the policies, programmes and funding that can make a difference in the lives of children.

It also seeks ways to encourage country governments to adopt comprehensive early childhood development programmes. In an event on Tuesday ahead of the opening of the UN General Assembly, UNICEF will join with the Governments of Chile and Rwanda to herald the advancements in the science of early childhood development and call for world leaders to ensure that early childhood development forms a central part of our next set of global goals to achieve a more prosperous and sustainable world.

Early childhood is a critical time. When the brain fails to get what it needs, damage is done. If we fail to take action in these earliest years, we may not get a second chance. Why wait until that happens and spend more time, effort and money to get back on track? Let’s start early and help place children on the best path we can to fulfilling and productive lives. It will be better for them. And it will be better for the world.

Pia Britto is Senior Advisor on Early Childhood Development at UNICEF.

Follow the ‘Breakfast of Champions for ECD’ event on Tuesday 23 September 2014, 8:30 – 9:30 am EST, on Twitter with @UNICEFEducation and #ECDChampions.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with “required.”


  1. This excellent evidence-based blog should be read and broadly discussed among all concerned with one of the human and national development issues that matter the most. The message is crystal clear, there are no short cuts; we must invest in scale up of well integrated Early Child Development multisectoral strategies and programs that we know work. The returns on these investments are likely to be huge. Can we afford not to make them?

    1. We can not afford to not make them. We need to, and with quantitative studies backing us up, invest in birth to five (pre-school) education and development for parents.

  2. A beautiful summary of a deep passion of mine. Thank you for the concise rant! The more we can throw quantitative studies at the deep pockets of the world, perhaps the faster we can change the world.

  3. Children hold the future for the nations/globe. Most of the challenges the world is experiencing to day are partly a result of what was not was not harnessed in early childhood

  4. Thanks Rafael. I agree and would love ideas for how to share this more broadly.

  5. if you are aware of the quantitative studies please do share – such data is vital – thanks so much

  6. yes it is time to have data speak to funding on this issue. thank you for raising it – look forward to strategies for achieving that goal

  7. Patrick your work is pioneering – keep it going we cite and use it. thank you

  8. As an Early Childhood Educator in a kindergarten program, and previously in the childcare industry, my education regarding child development (as well as my personal philosophy of the nature/nurture link and accompanying pedagogy of play-based inquiry learning) has been vitally important as a best practices measuring stick. If there is not an ECE with in depth knowledge of how children develop and connect to their family, environment and world around them in EVERY early years program, then a stricter focus of this subject matter MUST be a part of EVERY teacher degree program. It is our duty(and my honour) to support each child through their developmental process to be the best of who they were ever meant to be. One must have the understanding of how the whole child is developing in order to best support them in these most influential years. Thank you for your outstanding contribution to our children.

    Jocelyne Brent RECE, Dr. David Suzuki School, Windsor, ON

  9. Delighted to find this forum of discussion, with over 30 years experience in early years could not agree more with points made.