Early childhood development
For every child, early moments matter.
Science shows that life is a story for which the beginning sets the tone. That makes the early years of childhood a time of great opportunity, but also great risk.
Children’s brains are built, moment by moment, as they interact with their environments. In the first few years of life, more than one million neural connections are formed each second – a pace never repeated again. The quality of a child’s early experiences makes a critical difference as their brains develop, providing either strong or weak foundations for learning, health and behaviour throughout life.
In the first few years of life, more than one million neural connections are formed each second – a pace never repeated again.
Early childhood offers a critical window of opportunity to shape the trajectory of a child’s holistic development and build a foundation for their future. For children to achieve their full potential, as is their human right, they need health care and nutrition, protection from harm and a sense of security, opportunities for early learning, and responsive caregiving – like talking, singing and playing – with parents and caregivers who love them. All of this is needed to nourish developing brains and fuel growing bodies.
For many millions of the world’s most disadvantaged children – including children living in poverty or affected by conflict and crisis, children on the move, children belonging to communities facing discrimination, and children with disabilities – we are often missing this window of opportunity.
Millions of children are not receiving the nutrition or health care they need, growing up exposed to violence, polluted environments and extreme stress. They miss out on opportunities to learn and are deprived of the stimulation that their developing brains need to thrive. Their parents and caregivers struggle to get the time, resources and services necessary to provide their children with nurturing care in these contexts.
When children miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they pay the price in lost potential – dying before they have a chance to grow up, or going through life with poor physical and mental health; struggling to learn and, later, to earn a living. And we all pay the price. Failing to give children the best start in life perpetuates cycles of poverty and disadvantage that can span generations, undermining the strength and stability of our societies.
Explore topics in early childhood development
When we give children the best start in life, the benefits are huge, for every child and for the societies we share. Providing early childhood development (ECD) interventions to all young children and families is one of the most powerful and cost-effective equalizers we have at our disposal, to ensure that the most vulnerable children can reach their full potential.
Because parents and caregivers are the most important providers of nurturing care in early childhood, UNICEF works to ensure they have the time, resources and services they need to provide it. We offer information and resources directly to parents, and also work with service providers and employers to offer support for parenting, from family-friendly workplaces and childcare, to child benefits for families and support for caregivers’ well-being.
Promoting children’s optimal development involves coordinated efforts across health, nutrition, education, child protection and social protection systems, and beyond. UNICEF works with governments, businesses, civil society and academia to strengthen these systems so that children receive the services required for their developmental needs – and to make sure that the institutions that shape the lives of children and families work together to create a supportive environment for them.
For young children in humanitarian and fragile settings, access to ECD services is a matter of life and death. UNICEF advocates with governments, donors and other partners to ensure that ECD is treated – and funded – as a priority in all humanitarian action, including in protracted crises. We also work with partners to provide essential ECD services – from health and nutrition to play and early learning opportunities – to meet the needs of children and caregivers during emergencies.
Data and evidence on ECD are essential to identifying the children at greatest risk of not achieving their full potential, improving and targeting services, and making the case for adequate investments in young children and their families. UNICEF works with governments and other partners to monitor ECD and create measurement tools that help close the gaps in our knowledge of young children’s development.
The latest from UNICEF
|UNICEF||Early Moments Matter for Every Child|
|Nurturing Care for Early Childhood Development, a partnership between WHO, UNICEF, World Bank|
|UNICEF||Vision for Elevating Parenting|
Research and data
|UNICEF||UNICEF Data: Early Childhood Development|
|UNICEF||Early Childhood Development Index, ECDI2030|
|Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University|