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A lifetime of benefits
An eight-month-old boy stands tentatively in his crib, knees wobbling, his expression uncertain as he peers out into the empty room. As the child's anxiety rises, he makes several high-pitched yelps, which succeed in bringing his father to his bedside. The child's face suddenly breaks into a smile of recognition, and his father responds with a playful hug and a kiss.
Seemingly simple exchanges such as this between father and son will resonate in every aspect of the child's life. In the early childhood years, the experiences and interactions with parents, family members and other adults influence the way a child's brain develops. Recent scientific discoveries confirm that the supportive, reassuring touches and movements between a caregiver and a child can have as much impact as good health and clean water. How the brain develops during this period sets the stage for later success in primary school, adolescence and adulthood. Of course, it is never too late to improve children's health and development. But, as is more often the case, when children don't get the right start, they may never catch up or reach their full potential.
Around the world, parents and communities have created innovative ways of helping their children grow and develop. Successful care for children needs to be multidimensional, simultaneously fostering children's good health and nutrition and their cognitive, social and emotional abilities. In Sri Lanka, health care workers come to Priyanthi's village to administer childhood vaccines, perform medical check-ups and promote health education in the community. Pre-schools focus on stimulation, play, numeracy and literacy preparation among the youngest children. Taken together, these efforts have helped young children like Madushika and her two-year-old brother Madusha thrive and shine. Early childhood care in its most elemental form has made a profound difference in the lives of Priyanthi's children and her community.
Early childhood care is also a force for positive social change. In a crèche in South Africa, the seeds of racial healing are being sown in an area where apartheid had previously fostered hatred. In a poor neighbourhood in Johannesburg, tucked in the corner of a park once labelled 'For whites only', the Impilo Project is providing comprehensive care for young children of all races. The programme helps parents find jobs and promotes safety for women and children in the surrounding communities. By fostering problem-solving over conflict and acceptance over intolerance, children in South Africa are acquiring the tools necessary to lead their families and their newly democratic nation towards peace.
Early childhood care has a ripple effect throughout societies. Promoting children's survival also requires advocating for the rights of women, whose physical and emotional condition influences their pregnancies and their babies' development. Poor prenatal care and malnutrition in mothers have been linked to low birthweight, hearing problems, learning difficulties, spina bifida and brain damage in children. Infants born to underweight mothers are more likely to develop conditions later as adults, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. The 1990 World Summit for Children recognized the importance of maternal health to children when it called for cutting maternal deaths in half by the year 2000.
We are still far from that urgent goal. A woman in the developing world is 40 times more likely than a woman living in the industrialized world to die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. A study in Bangladesh showed that when a woman dies in childbirth, her surviving baby is 3 to 10 times more likely to die within two years than a child who is living with both parents. Shoring up care for mothers would protect children. Recognizing this, UNICEF and its many partners promote safe motherhood initiatives throughout the world.
Less than a kilometre from Priyanthi's home lives a family not regularly involved in early childhood care programmes. The father, 33-year-old Wimalarathne, is clearly concerned about his two-year-old daughter's development. He beckons to his wife, Kusumawathi, 30, to get their daughter's growth chart, which shows the child's weight and height dropping from average readings at birth to below average as a toddler. The small girl with the piercing dark eyes barely utters a word. Wimalarathne said that the doctor is at a loss about her slow growth and has recommended that the family become involved with the home-visiting programme.
Two families in the same village, in similar circumstances, yet the children are so different. These families in Sri Lanka, like millions throughout the world, are poor. Most are subsistence farmers and casual labourers who work in nearby factories or on tea plantations. Although 99 per cent of the children are immunized, almost 40 per cent are malnourished. Some families have access to and benefit from early childhood care programmes. Many more do not.
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