Early Childhood Development

Children's first one thousand days


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 three years old, babies and children need nutrition, protection, and stimulation for healthy brain development. 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 about children’s brains the way we care for their bodies.

The first five years is a vital period in a child’s life cycle to ensure children get off to the best start in life. But many children in Malawi face challenges from the day they are born. These range from parents or guardians not having the opportunity or knowledge to develop positive parenting skills, to poor health care and nutrition, little early stimulation and learning, and the lack of a protective environment. The challenges increase when children are also affected by HIV/AIDS and humanitarian disasters.

There has been some progress on Malawi's commitment to early childhood development (ECD), including progress made on reducing stunting and child deaths and increasing enrolment of young children in early education programmes. However, challenges remain to ensure that all children in Malawi, including the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, benefit from improved parenting practices, better ECD interventions and services, and early learning opportunities.


    UNICEF Malawi/2018/Thoko Chikondi
    An under-5 child being tested for malnutrition during child health days

    The Solution

    Early childhood development, or ECD, refers to the physical, cognitive, linguistic, and socio-emotional development of a child from pregnancy through the first years of life. The right interventions at the right time can boost a child’s development 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 ECD to work, it is important to make sure that pregnant women, parents of new-born babies, infants, and young children, have positive parenting knowledge and skills related to early childhood development. This includes knowledge of childhood nutrition and health.

    It is also important to ensure that pregnant mothers, parents, and guardians of infants and young children have access to ECD- services. This includes access to ECD centres to provide children with early learning opportunities, as well as access to birth registration for new-borns.  Parents and guardians also need access to child protection services in case a child experiences abuse or violence. 

    UNICEF is supporting the expansion of ECD services through community-based care centres. We are also working with the Government to improve policies and learning frameworks. One of these is the Care for Child Development framework which was developed by UNICEF and the World Health Organization. It guides health workers and other counsellors as they help families build stronger relationships with their children and solve problems in caring for their children at home. The framework also highlights the links between ECD and other development areas including health, nutrition, early childcare, learning, and development services.

    In UNICEF’s 2019 to 2023 country programme, the agency will continue to support interventions to improve early childhood development. These include improving nutrition screening of young children for malnutrition, cooking classes for mothers and backyard gardens to promote good nutrition for under-five children, and encouraging exclusive breastfeeding among mothers. UNICEF will also continue to support village health workers to provide clinics for under five children, scale up national immunization campaigns to protect young children from diseases like measles, as well as to support the learning and stimulation of pre-school children in Community Based Child Care centres.

    UNICEF Malawi/2018/Tendai Banda
    A child playing at Tigiwirzane ECD center in Mangochi