Health and child development

All children, including those with developmental delays and disabilities, have the right to lead healthy lives.

Two parents walking down a dirt path near the woods play with their young son.

To reach their full potential, children need high-quality health care and services – especially in life’s early moments.

The time between pregnancy and age 3, when the brain is most susceptible to environmental influences, is critical for a child’s growth and development. All children – including those with disabilities and developmental delays, those living in poverty or deprivation, and those affected by conflict or displacement – need nurturing care and health services to survive and thrive.

But millions do not receive them.

In many places, health systems are not equipped to support routine health interactions among children, families and caregivers. Without regular monitoring, some children miss out on specialized health services and developmental support that could help them fulfil their potential.

Early interventions are especially crucial to children with developmental delays and disabilities, but many do not have access to primary health care systems that provide them.

Globally, 93 million children 14 years old and younger experience moderate or severe developmental delays or disabilities.

Because children with developmental delays and disabilities are more likely to be invisible in government statistics, they are often excluded from policy decisions that could improve their well-being. As a result, the quality of the health services they receive can be severely compromised – largely due to limited capacity, inadequate training of service providers, or lack of coordination between public authorities and community practitioners.

Link to video on it's hosted site.
Valery, age 1, has the best start. Her parents are making sure she has the best future too.

UNICEF’s response

In 2018, UNICEF co-led the creation of the Nurturing Care Framework for Early Childhood Development. This framework outlines relevant policies, interventions and strategies needed across sectors – including health, nutrition, education and child protection – to strengthen early childhood development and monitor progress towards associated goals.

The health sector plays a critical role in galvanizing Governments and partners to support children’s holistic health and well-being. It also serves as a platform for policy makers and practitioners across sectors to reach mothers, families and children with crucial early interventions.

UNICEF works around the world to support key components of nurturing care and seek opportunities to advance nurturing care through routine health interactions among children, families and caregivers.

We also focus on early identification and early interventions of developmental delays and disabilities among children, particularly during the first three years of life, while promoting universal coverage of responsive caregiving and early learning.

UNICEF, alongside the World Health Organization, develops global goods, disseminates learning, and convenes Governments and partners at global, regional and country levels to support the development of action plans, the mobilization of resources and the training of health-care professionals to ensure all children receive the nurturing care they need to thrive. 

Children with developmental delays and disabilities sing together in a music class.
Children with developmental delays and disabilities attend a music class in Yerevan, Armenia, where UNICEF supported the Government in introducing community-based rehabilitation.


Nurturing Care Framework for Early Childhood Development

Learn why nurturing care is vital for the healthy growth and development of all children.

Operationalizing Nurturing Care for Early Childhood Development: The Role of the Health Sector alongside Other Sectors and Actors

This guidance elaborates on the multiple opportunities to advance nurturing care for national Governments, global development partners and other stakeholders.

Care for Child Development: Technical Note

This tool, jointly developed by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, guides health-care and other front-line workers on how to support caregivers to build nurturing relationships with their young children.

International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health

Explore the World Health Organization framework for measuring health and disability at the individual and population levels.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The Convention reflects decades of work by the United Nations to change attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities.

The State of the World’s Children, 2013: Children with Disabilities

This UNICEF report examines the barriers that deprive children with disabilities of their rights and keep them from participating fully in society.

World Report on Disability, 2011

This report from the World Health Organization and the World Bank finds that people with disabilities have generally poorer health, lower education achievements, fewer economic opportunities and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities.