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Early Childhood

Why Early Childhood Development?

© UNICEF/ HQ00-0739/ Pirozzi
A toddler laughs as he and two other children wash their hands in a plastic basin before they have lunch, at St. Bernadette's, a Catholic early childhood development (ECD) centre in Maseru, Lesotho.

7.6 million children under the age of 5 worldwide die each year. More than 25 times that number – over 200 million children – survive, but do not reach their full potential. As a result, their countries have an estimated 20 per cent loss in adult productivity. What happens during the early years is of crucial importance for every child’s development. It is a period of great opportunity, but also of vulnerability to negative influences.

Many children do not reach their full human potential because of their families’ income status, geographic location, ethnicity, disability, religion or sexual orientation. They do not receive adequate nutrition, care and opportunities to learn. These children and their families can be helped. It is their right to develop as well as to survive. Good nutrition and health and consistent loving care and encouragement to learn in the early years of life help children to do better at school, be healthier, have higher earnings and participate more in society. This is especially important for children in poverty. A good foundation in the early years makes a difference through adulthood and even gives the next generation a better start. Educated and healthy people participate in, and contribute to, the financial and social wealth of their societies.

Early years of childhood form the basis of intelligence, personality, social behavior, and capacity to learn and nurture oneself as an adult. There is significant evidence that links the circumstances of adversity and habits formed in early years to the non-communicable diseases of adulthood.

There is consistent and strong evidence which shows that:

  • Brain development is most rapid in the early years of life. When the quality of stimulation, support and nurturance is deficient, child development is seriously affected.
  • The effects of early disadvantage on children can be reduced. Early interventions for disadvantaged children lead to improvements in children’s survival, health, growth, and cognitive and social development. 
  • Children who receive assistance in their early years achieve more success at school. As adults they have higher employment and earnings, better health, and lower levels of welfare dependence and crime rates than those who don’t have these early opportunities.
  • Efforts to improve early child development are an investment, not a cost. Available cost-benefit ratios of early intervention indicate that for every dollar spent on improving early child development, returns can be on average 4 to 5 times the amount invested, and in some cases, much higher.

Health services, health workers and community providers have an important role in promoting development of young children. Focussing exclusively on targeted interventions such as health and nutrition without considering the holistic nature of Early Childhood Development risks the hindrance of children’s complete growth and development.  Both biological and environmental factors affect brain development and behavior.  For example, young children who experience extreme stress are at greater risk for developing cognitive, behavioral or emotional difficulties.  These impediments can have lasting effects on children's readiness for school and later on their performance in school.  For disadvantaged children, the initial deficit of interventions for development has a multiplying effect: children raised in poverty complete far less education than middle class children, due in part to their lowered ability to learn in school. The opportunity to help disadvantaged children attain a more equal start in schooling is in the earliest years of life, when children’s brains are developing most rapidly, and the basis for their cognitive, social and emotional development is being formed.  A commitment to reducing poverty and increasing the chances of success for all children requires investment in the earliest years.

The right to a child’s development has been accepted and embraced by the international community.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly highlights the importance of early child development, saying that a child has a right to develop to “the maximum extent possible.” (Article 6) and that “States Parties recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.” (Article 27).

Based on new research and a new understanding of the complete well-being of the child, early child development is increasingly being put on the agenda for children’s rights.  Ensuring the healthy cognitive, social and emotional development of young children merits the highest priority of every responsible government, organization, community, family and individual for the sake of raising healthy children worldwide.  Reaching children in a holistic manner and incorporating health, nutrition, water and sanitation, education and interventions that support their full development is crucial.




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