The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently released new guidance for improving Early Childhood Development (ECD).
Early childhood development (ECD) encompasses physical, socio emotional, cognitive and motor development between 0-8 years of age.
The first years of life are among the most important for a child’s mental and physical development. In our earliest years, science shows that our brains build new connections at a rate that will never again be repeated – with over 80% of neural development happening by the time we reach three years of age.
In this brain-building process, it’s not only physical needs that must be met. Babies and young children also require mental stimulation and close, loving interaction with those around them – starting from birth. These precious moments most often take place with family members, who are the focus of a baby’s first, most treasured relationships.
Responsive care means tuning into a child’s signals and what they are telling us – whether they do this by facial expressions, crying, or making other sounds and movements – and then responding accordingly to their needs.
This process helps set up the basis for building secure and loving relationships, as well as early learning. It helps babies and young children feel safe, knowing they are protected by those they love, and that they can effectively communicate their needs.
Some of the things parents and caregivers can do to strengthen this bond include:
- Frequent physical contact, like holding or cuddling.
- Regular eye contact from a short distance away.
- Talking and singing and responding to the noises the baby makes.
Children’s learning and development is not just something that happens. It requires constant attention – and much more investment. It also requires attention to the needs of caregivers, including their physical and mental health.
At the government level, this encompasses family friendly policies like paid parental leave, child benefits and affordable childcare, all of which help parents provide safe, stable and loving care for their children.
Health systems must also help families provide responsive care. Health workers, such as midwives, nurses, doctors and community health workers, can support parents to identify and respond to a baby’s needs, while counselling on the importance of early play and communication. They can make sure that families are aware of relevant services and additional support, including maternal mental health care.
250 million children (43%) younger than 5 years in low- and middle-income countries are at risk of not achieving their developmental potential, due to risk factors of extreme poverty and stunting alone.
Maternal depression is an additional risk factor that affects 1 in 6 women during the perinatal period and can be addressed with interventions at the primary care level.
Nurturing care is especially important for children in the early years, from pregnancy to age 3. This period of rapid physical and psychological development is when the foundations for later health and well-being are laid.
Nutrition interventions do not have an impact on early childhood development when
implemented alone, but are associated with improved childhood development when combined with support for responsive caregiving and opportunities for early learning.
No single sector or stakeholder can provide all that is needed for every caregiver and every child. Everyone has an important role to play, including in developing social policies that support families and young children.
Link to the related WHO news release:
Link to the WHO Guideline document:
Link to WHO page on Early Child Development: