Early childhood development

The early moments matter and are essential for every child to reach their full potential.

Children and ASHA Workers gather at the Anganwadi Children’s centre in Gandhigram Village.
UNICEF/UN0148227

The challenge

The early moments of a child’s life matter – and their impact can last a lifetime. The process of a baby’s brain development begins during pregnancy and is influenced by a pregnant woman’s health, nutrition and environment. After birth, a baby’s brain continues to develop rapidly, impacting his or her physical, intellectual and emotional well-being, learning potential and subsequently, earning capacity and success in adulthood.

The early years (0 to 8 years) are the most extraordinary period of growth and development in a child’s lifetime. The foundations of all learning are laid during these years. Getting the foundations right carries huge future benefits: better learning in school and higher educational attainment, which results in major social and economic gains for society. Research shows that good quality early learning and early childhood development (ECD) programmes help to reduce the chances of dropout and repetition and improves outcomes at all levels of education.

The goal for ECD is that all young children, especially the most vulnerable, from conception to age of school entry, achieve their developmental potential, including in humanitarian settings.

The early childhood period encompasses several quite distinct phases: from ‘conception to birth’ and from ‘birth to 3 years’, with emphasis on the first 1,000 days (from conception to 24 months), followed by the ‘preschool and pre-primary years (3 years to 5 or 6 years, or the age of school entry). While the definition also includes 6 to 8 years of age, the focus of this programme guidance is on the earlier years up to school entry. These are not precise phases, but they are useful categories to ensure policy development and programming responses to the specific sensitive periods along the developmental trajectory.

India has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls for State parties to “ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.” The Convention defines early childhood as the period from conception through eight years of age. 

Over 43 per cent of children under the age of five are at risk of not fulfilling their full developmental potential.

Rimpi Rani, an Aanganwadi worker feeds a child during a meeting as part of Village Health and Nutrition Day (VHND) in Motipur Kala Aanganwadi Centre in Shrawasti, Uttar Pradesh.
UNICEF/UN0281092/Vishwanathan
Rimpi Rani, an Aanganwadi worker feeds a child during a meeting as part of Village Health and Nutrition Day (VHND) in Motipur Kala Aanganwadi Centre in Shrawasti, Uttar Pradesh.

Early Childhood Development or early childhood care and education as it is known in India refers to:

  • An outcome defining a child’s status – being adequately nourished, physically healthy, mentally alert, emotionally sound, socially competent and ready to learn and
  • A process - comprehensive and closely linked cross-sectoral interventions achieving the outcome. The basic ingredients of optimal development for a child are nutrition and health, hygiene, protection and responsive stimulation, which together constitute ‘nurturing care’. Healthy early childhood development is important for all children.  

Child health and nutrition outcomes in India have improved significantly over the last years. Under-five mortality rate has declined by 62 per cent from 1990 to 2015 – compared with a global decline of 53% in the same period. More children have been initiated on breastfeeding early and are being breastfed exclusively. Yet, India accounts for one fifth of under-five mortality and a quarter of neonatal deaths globally. Nearly 38 per cent of children below five in India are stunted1. Taken as the proxy indicator for ECD, the stunting rates show that more than a third of India’s children are not growing and developing optimally, to their full potential. Although majority of children, slightly over 70 per cent, attend pre-primary education, there are critical gaps in the quality of early childhood education (ECE) programmes.2  This also implies that nearly 20 million most marginalized children are left out of preschool with the worst impacts on their survival, growth and development.

Solution

UNICEF supports training of frontline workers to engage and counsel parents on providing nurturing care, responsive feeding, early stimulation and support for children’s learning at home, besides training them to deliver quality early childhood education. It supports community and health facility follow-ups of small and sick new-borns after their discharge from special new-born care units, enables access to safe drinking water and sanitation and provides support to strengthen early childhood development monitoring and assessment mechanisms.

UNICEF is supporting the Government of India in addressing all the challenges that affect ECD programmes through a comprehensive framework, delivered by a well-equipped system, with a robust oversight, accountability and redressal. UNICEF focuses on supporting essential services for young children on quality health, nutrition; early learning; early screening/intervention as well as promoting parental/family support.

Investing in ECD one of the most cost-efficient and powerful strategies to achieve fair and sustainable development.

Vijay Gaud comforts his one month old daughter Kushboo during a visit of Dr. Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF India Representative (not in picture) observing home based new born care in Chaubeypur.
UNICEF/UN0164530/Vishwanathan
Vijay Gaud comforts his one month old daughter Kushboo during a visit of Dr. Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF India Representative (not in picture) observing home based new born care in Chaubeypur.

The inclusion of Early Childhood Development for the first time on the global development agenda represents a unique opportunity to galvanise efforts around it. There is the invaluable evidence gained from the remarkable advances in neuroscience that show that a child’s development (including development of the brain) is fundamentally shaped by their environment in the earliest years of their life.

The development of a child’s brain depends on environmental stimulation, especially on the quality of care and interaction that the child receives. We use the phrase Eat.Play.Love. A baby who is hugged cooed to, comforted and visually stimulated has an essential advantage.  Children who are nurtured and well cared for are more likely to fully develop cognitive, language, emotional and social skills; to grow up healthier, and to have higher self-esteem. Each one of these areas is crucial to our well-being as adults; our experiences in early childhood truly shape who we ultimately become.