Early childhood development

UNICEF’s work on early childhood development (ECD) recognizes the essential building blocks for every growing child: nurturing care, good health, optimal nutrition and a stimulating and safe environment for all-round development and learning.

A young child holds a little soft toy in her mouth while an older relative gives her a hug and kiss.

The challenge

Every child has the right to the best start in life, which paves the way for healthy development and learning. A poor start, however, can have life-long consequences. 

All families with young children need support, with the development of children closely tied to the well-being of their parents. For the most disadvantaged children, interventions must start in the earliest months of life if they are to meet their many interconnected needs.

But evidence from Europe and Central Asia shows that many young children do not get the best start, and are exposed to harsh discipline, neglect and discrimination, as well as poor nutrition.

Young children who may have developmental difficulties and disabilities are frequently ‘invisible’: unidentified and unreached by any support. Some are abandoned and institutionalized. 

A young Roma woman with her smiling five-month-old baby.
A young Roma woman with her smiling five-month-old baby.

The regional challenges to early childhood development (ECD) include the loss of human, social and economic capital to societies resulting from a lack of political and financial investment in the early years of life, and limited understanding of the importance of getting it right for children from the outset. The results later in life can include poor physical and mental health, poor achievement, unemployment and poverty. 

Countries across a region that once had strong safety nets for families, including state-funded early education and care for pre-school-aged children, have seen that tradition eroded, leaving millions without adequate services. In Kazakhstan, once characterized by high levels of state provision, pre-school participation fell by two-thirds in the 1990s. While rates have improved since 1999 (increasing by 14 percentage points in Central Asia and 23 percentage points in Central and Eastern Europe), demand for pre-school places far exceeds availability.  

There are wide and persistent equity gaps for young children.

The region faces equity gaps in pre-school participation based on income, ethnicity, disability and location. Almost every child in Belarus may be enrolled in early education, for example, but the enrolment rate in Bosnia and Herzegovina is just 17 per cent.

In Serbia, more than 75 per cent of children from the wealthiest families take part in pre-school education, compared to just 20 per cent of those from the poorest families – a problem that reflects limited pre-school places in poorer communities.  

There are similar equity concerns around the health and nutrition of young children. Stunting (with children too short for their age – a sign of poor nutrition that can affect brain development) has been found to be more than three times higher among Roma children in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia than the national average.

The solution

Given the many needs of young children, UNICEF works closely with health, nutrition, education and child protection systems in Europe and Central Asia, promoting initiatives that give every child the best possible start in life. 

It is not enough to simply add early childhood development (ECD) content to existing programmes. We work to embed ECD into every relevant sector and system, from policy development to budgeting and training. 

A strong bond between a parent and young child is the best foundation.

UNICEF starts by focusing on families with children under the age of three, aiming to nurture comprehensive young child well-being. We recognize that a strong bond between a parent or caregiver and a young child is the best foundation for happy and healthy development and learning. 

No sector has a greater connection with families than the health sector, with its universal access to pregnant women and young children. We capitalize on these early contacts, particularly through existing home-visiting services that are the most likely to reach marginalized families. Home visitors can provide advice and guidance, identify developmental problems and refer families to additional or specialized support. Such services can reinforce family resilience and the capacities of families to care for their young children. 

A young baby and her father pose for a photo in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A young baby and her father pose for a photo in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

UNICEF also promotes early learning and school readiness for children aged 3-6. We advocate for and support good quality and inclusive pre-school education as a fundamental building block for life-long learning, working across the region to support such pre-schooling for each and every child. 

This impact of our cross-sectoral approach can be seen in Bulgaria, where our support has helped to bring ECD services to children across 66 municipalities. Families receive a comprehensive ECD package of family counselling, early identification and intervention to support children with disabilities, and support through Family Centres to enrol all young children in pre-schools.


These resources on early childhood development represent just a small selection of materials produced by UNICEF and its partners in the region. The list is regularly updated to include latest information. 

Every Child ALIVE - the urgent need to end newborn deaths (2018) - UNICEF

Expanding Equity: Strengthening the Health Sector to Support Young Child Development and Wellbeing (2016) - Consultative Group on ECCD

Toolkit of Recommended Curricula and Assessments for Early Childhood Home Visiting (2013) - UNICEF

Conception to age 2 – the age of opportunity (2013) - Wave Trust

Roma Early Childhood Inclusion: Overview Report (2012) - Open Society Foundations, Roma Education Fund and UNICEF

Developmental Difficulties in Early Childhood (2012) - World Health Organisation

Women, Motherhood, Early Childhood Development: Exploring the question of how poor Roma women’s status and situation influences children’s survival, growth and development (2011) - UNICEF

A Good Start: How to introduce alternative early childhood education in local communities (2009) - Comenius Foundation and UNICEF

The Lancet ECD Series (various) - website