The case for a focus on Early Childhood Development (ECD) is not new: WHO, UNICEF, the World Bank, and Academics have already been advocating for a focus on this critical period of child development and its potentially high returns on investment. And since the publication in October 2016 of the Lancet Early Childhood Development Series, the number of calls has multiplied, including by MMM, and awareness is rising across sectors. There is now a powerful and well-established scientific, social and economic case for investing Early Childhood Education and Care.
During pregnancy – and until age 3, the brain develops at the astounding rate of 700-1000 new connections per second, i.e. faster than at any other moment later in life. Recent advances in Neurosciences have also confirmed that more than Genetics, the earliest experiences shape a baby’s brain development, and have a lifelong impact on their mental and emotional health, as well as their physical, intellectual and social development – including during pregnancy.
Adversity during a mother’s pregnancy or during the early childhood years (such as violence, abuse, neglect or any form of stress) can produce physiologic disruptions or biological memories that undermine a child’s development and their potential for productive participation in society later in life.
Instead, security and safety, combined with loving, responsive and nurturing caregiving, early stimulation and learning (i.e. “skilled early parenting”) are linked to positive brain development and function throughout the life course.
The UN Every Woman Every Child (EWEC) global movement has highlighted the tremendous returns that its “Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health (2016-2030)” could yield by 2030, including: “At least a 10-fold return on investments through better educational attainments, workforce participation, and social contributions; At least US$100 billion in demographic dividends from investments in early childhood and adolescent health and development; A ‘grand convergence’ in health, giving all women, children and adolescents an equal chance to survive and thrive”.
There is also an economic rationale for providing support and care for mothers during pregnancy and early childhood. Research by the London School of Economics & Centre for Mental Health has established that providing support and care for mothers and babies during pregnancy and early childhood is five times more effective than later interventions designed to deal with individual or social problems in later life.
Long-term outcomes go well beyond the health of mother and children today. Investing in maternal health and early childhood development and targeting the most disadvantaged families could have an impact on the future prosperity and stability of a country. It could potentially help break the inter-generational cycle of poverty, foster well-functioning families, and ultimately bring about fairer and more peaceful communities and societies.
Early Childhood Care and Education – starting during pregnancy – and empowering mothers and other caregivers in the essential role of upbringing children, is the best investment a country can make. Not only it is a matter of child rights, but it is key to the realization of the 2030 Development Agenda, notably SDG1 on poverty eradication and SDG16 on the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies.
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