Early childhood development

For every child, early moments matter.

Early Childhood Development - A 2 year old laughs while being carried by his father in Belize

The challenge

Faster than we ever thought: the first years of a child’s life set the stage for all future growth.

In the earliest years of life, especially from pregnancy to age three, babies need nutrition, protection and stimulation for healthy brain development. Recent advances in neuroscience provide new evidence about a baby’s brain development during this time. As a result, we know that in their earliest years, babies’ brains form new connections at an astounding rate – according to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child more than 1 million every single second – a pace never repeated again.

In the brain-building process, neural connections are shaped by genes and life experiences – namely good nutrition, protection and stimulation from talk, play and responsive attention from caregivers. This combination of nature and nurture establishes the foundation of a child’s future.  

Yet too many children are still missing out on the ‘eat, play, and love’ their brains need to develop. Put simply, we don’t care for children’s brains the way we care for their bodies.

When you pay attention to the beginning of the story, you can change the whole story.

Raffi Cavoukian, singer and founder of Canada’s Centre for Child Honouring

A mix of factors determine why some children receive the nutrition, protection and stimulation they need, while others are left behind. Poverty is a common part of the equation. 250 million children under five in low- and middle-income countries risk not reaching their development potential because of extreme poverty and stunting.

Often, the most disadvantaged children are least likely to have access to the essential ingredients for healthy development. For example,  frequent or prolonged exposure to extreme stress – such as neglect and abuse – can trigger biological response systems that, without the buffer of a protective adult, create toxic stress,  a response that can interfere with brain development. As the child grows, toxic stress can portend physical, mental and behavioural problems in adulthood.

Conflict and uncertainty also play a role as children younger than five in conflict-affected areas and fragile states face elevated risks to their lives, health and wellbeing.

Oversight and inaction have a high price and long-term implications for the health, happiness and earning potential as these children become adults. They also contribute to global cycles of poverty, inequality and social exclusion.

Despite the need, early childhood programmes remain severely underfunded with lacklustre execution. Government investment in early childhood development is low. For example, in 27 sub-Saharan African countries measured, only 0.01 per cent of gross national product was spent on pre-primary education in 2012.

There is also little public understanding of the importance of a child’s first years and slight public demand for policies, programmes and funding.


Building your baby’s brain

Some key facts:

  • Lack of nutrition in early childhood leads to stunting, which globally affects nearly one-in-four children younger than five.
  • Risks associated with poverty – such as undernutrition and poor sanitation – can lead to developmental delays and a lack of progress in school.
  • Violent discipline is widespread in many countries, and nearly 70 percent of children between two and four were yelled or screamed at in the past month.
  • 300 million children younger than five have been exposed to societal violence.
  • For a child in a low- or middle-income country, poor early development could mean they earn around one-quarter less in income, as an adult.
  • For a country, poor early childhood development could mean economic loss; in India, the loss is about twice the gross domestic product spent on health.

The solution

Fast-growing brains need family-friendly policies and environments to keep them going.

Good news: the right interventions at the right time can bolster development, break intergenerational cycles of inequity and provide a fair start in life for every child. For babies born into deprivation, intervening early, when the brain is rapidly developing, can reverse harm and help build resilience. For children with disabilities, it means making sure they have access to the individual, family and community services available to all children; combined with programmes that address each child’s specific needs.

We can support #EarlyChildhoodDevelopment by expanding existing programmes, especially health services. For example, The Lancet series found it would cost only an additional US$0.5 per person annually to add two services to support nurturing care of children into an integrated maternal and child health and nutrition service package.

Every time a parent speaks to a young child, it sparks something in the child; it’s stimulation to the child. It forms brain connections.

Dr Pia Rebello Britto, neuroscientist, UNICEF senior advisor on ECD

Thanks to the compelling scientific evidence and sustained advocacy, governments and society are beginning to realise the criticality of investing in the earliest years of a child’s life. In 2015, early childhood development was included in the Sustainable Development Goals, reaffirming its growing status in the global development agenda. This built on earlier efforts which saw early childhood development included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that a child has a right to develop to “the maximum extent possible” and recognised “the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.”


The best start in life

Watch: Interacting with babies

Watch: Why play is important

Watch: Babies are scientists

We must act urgently to make investing in early childhood development a priority in every country to achieve the 2030 goals. Investing in early childhood development is a cost-effective way to boost shared prosperity, promote inclusive economic growth, expand equal opportunity, and end extreme poverty. For every $1 spent on early childhood development, the return on investment can be as high as $13.

But parents need time and support to create a loving and safe environment to give their babies the ‘eat, play and love’ they need, and to help build their babies’ brains.

That’s why UNICEF is working to increase investment in family-friendly policies, including paid parental leave and access to quality, affordable childcare;  it makes good sense for governments because it helps economies and businesses, as well as parents and children.

Investing in family-friendly policies makes good sense for businesses too; giving parents flexibility creates a happier and more productive workforce, and allows them more time to build the brains of the future.

The time to act is now; together, we can make the #EarlyMomentsMatter for every child.


Read the UNICEF’s six-point call to action for governments and businesses

Policy and investment determine children’s future, UNICEF fights for the best ones

Early Moments Matter for Every Child

This report outlines the neuroscience of early childhood development, including the importance of nutrition, protection and stimulation in the early years.

Care for child development

A guide for health workers and other counselors as they help families build stronger relationships with their children and solve problems in caring for their children at home.

Care for child development package | Related global resources | Western and Central Africa resources

Learning through Play 

Read the brief on strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmes

Why Early Childhood Development is the foundation for sustainable development

Read UNICEF Senior Advisor on Early Childhood Development Pia Britto's blog post

UNICEF Data has global information about children and early development

Read about the situation of children around the world, in numbers

UNICEF Early Childhood Development programme 

Early Childhood Development programme guidance | Early Childhood Development in the UNICEF Strategic Plan 2018-2021

UNICEF Early Childhood Development Kit for Emergencies – Evaluation


The time to invest in the future strength of our nations, our economies and our communities is in the earliest years of life. The clock is always ticking and the time to act is now.

Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University