Maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health

Early child development

Children should all be able to achieve their optimal physical growth and psycho-emotional development

Child and mother, Americas

The future of human societies depends on children being able to achieve their optimal physical growth and psychological development. Never before has there been so much knowledge to assist families and societies in their desire to raise children to meet their potential.

A time of vulnerability and opportunity

Early childhood development is considered to be the most important phase in life which determines the quality of health, well-being, learning and behaviour across the life span. It is a period of great opportunity, but also of great vulnerability to negative influences and constitutes a unique phase for capitalizing on developmental forces to prevent or minimize disabilities and potential secondary conditions.

The course that development takes in each person depends critically on the quality of stimulation, support and nurturance that the child experiences in his or her family, neighbourhood, and care environments. When these are deficient or unsupportive child development can be seriously malaffected.

Conclusive evidence shows however that with early and appropriate interventions that address the risk factors, growth, cognitive and social-emotional development can be modified in ways which improve health, well-being, and competence in the long-term. Despite the strength of the evidence for the greater effectiveness of investing in the early years, the response in terms of investments, has been slow particularly in the poorest countries.

Improving care for young children is fundamental to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. A 2007 series on Early Child Development in The Lancet estimated that more than 200 million children under five in the developing world do not fulfil their potential. The major reasons for their disadvantage are poor nutrition and few opportunities to learn in desperately poor families. The WHO’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health recognized the importance of early childhood development to equity, adult health, wellbeing and productivity.

The Education for all global monitoring report 2007 advocated that better care in early childhood improves performance in primary school. The World Bank’s poverty reduction strategies begin with early childhood development. The United Nations Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children found that young children bear the brunt of parental violence. It identified the importance of improved care for young children in the overall reduction of violence.

WHO advocates for early child development to be integrated in national and international policies aimed at improving population health and achieving greater health equity for all. It provides technical support to countries and partners for the development of ECD policies and programmes and for the inclusion of ECD interventions into relevant health sector programmes including maternal and child health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and health promotion programmes.

In collaboration with UNICEF, WHO is working for the uptake and scaling up of the Care for Child Development Intervention (CDI) in countries to promote optimal psycho-social development and to prevent the occurrence of developmental risks.

The Care for Child Development is a simple intervention that can be delivered through clinic based or community based services to improve responsive care giving. It has been shown to be feasible and effective in improving parenting behaviours in resource poor settings. Implemented on a wide-scale, Care for Child Development will have significant public health and social benefits especially for the most disadvantaged children and families.