Only 15 countries worldwide have three essential national policies that support families with young children – UNICEF

New report says around 85 million children under five live in 32 countries that do not offer families two years of free pre-primary education; paid breastfeeding breaks for new mothers for the first six months; and adequate paid parental leave

21 September 2017

Read the report here

NEW YORK, 21 September 2017 – Only 15 countries worldwide have three basic national policies that help guarantee the time and resources parents need to support their young children’s healthy brain development, UNICEF said today in a new report. Worse, 32 countries – home to one in eight of the world’s children under five – have none of these policies in place.

According to the report, Early Moments Matter for Every Child, two years of free pre-primary education, paid breastfeeding breaks during the first six months of a child’s life, and six months of paid maternity leave as well as four weeks of paid paternity leave help lay a critical foundation for optimal early childhood development. These policies help parents better protect their children and provide them with better nutrition, play and early learning experiences in the crucial first years of life when the brain grows at a rate never to be repeated.

The report notes that Cuba, France, Portugal, Russia and Sweden are among the countries that guarantee all three policies. However, 85 million children under five are growing up in 32 countries without any of the three critical policies in place. Surprisingly, 40 per cent of these children live in just two countries – Bangladesh and the United States.

“What’s the most important thing children have? It’s their brains. But we are not caring for children’s brains the way we care for their bodies – especially in early childhood, when the science shows that children’s brains and children’s futures are rapidly being shaped,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “We need to do more to give parents and caregivers of young children the support they need during this most critical period of brain development.” 

The report also highlights that millions of children under five years old are spending their formative years in unsafe, unstimulating environments:

  • Around 75 million children under-five live in areas affected by conflict, increasing their risk of toxic stress, which can inhibit brain cell connections in early childhood;
  • Globally, poor nutrition, unhealthy environments and disease have left 155 million children under five stunted, which robs their bodies and brains from developing to their full potential;
  • A quarter of all children between the ages of 2 and 4 years old in 64 countries do not take part in activities essential for brain development such as playing, reading and singing;
  • Around 300 million children globally live in areas where the air is toxic, which emerging research shows can damage children’s developing brains.

Failure to protect and provide the most disadvantaged children with early development opportunities undermines potential growth of whole societies and economies, the report warns, citing one study that revealed that children from poor households who experience play and early learning at a young age earned an average of 25 per cent more as adults than those who did not.

“If we don’t invest now in the most vulnerable children and families, we will continue to perpetuate intergenerational cycles of disadvantage and inequality. Life by life, missed opportunity by missed opportunity, we are increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots and undermining our long-term strength and stability,” said Lake.

On average, governments worldwide spend less than 2 per cent of their education budgets on early childhood programmes. Yet, the report highlights that investment in children’s early years today yields significant economic gains in the future. Every US$1 invested in programmes that support breastfeeding generates US$35 in return; and every US$1 invested in early childhood care and education for the most disadvantaged children can yield a return of up to US$17.

The report calls for governments and the private sector to support basic national policies to support early childhood development, including by:

  • Investing in and expanding early childhood development services in homes, schools, communities and health clinics – prioritising the most vulnerable children;
  • Making family-friendly policies, including two years of free pre-primary education, paid parental leave and paid breastfeeding breaks, a national priority;
  • Giving working parents the time and resources needed to support their young children’s brain development;
  • Collecting and disaggregating data on early childhood development and tracking progress in reaching the most vulnerable children and families.

“Policies that support early childhood development are a critical investment in the brains of our children, and thus in the citizens and workforce of tomorrow – and literally the future of the world,” said Lake.


Note to Editors:

Variables in this analysis were provided to UNICEF by the WORLD Policy Analysis Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Population figures come from 2017 UNPD. The variables include: two years of free pre-primary education; paid breastfeeding breaks for new mothers for the first six months; and six months paid maternity leave and four weeks paid paternity leave.

Countries with all three policies include: Belarus, Bulgaria, Cuba, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Romania, the Russian Federation, San Marino, Sweden, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine.

Countries without any of the three policies include: Algeria, Australia, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei, Dominica, The Gambia, Grenada, Kenya, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Liberia, Malawi, Malaysia, Federated States of Micronesia, Myanmar, Namibia, Oman, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Africa, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, Swaziland, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, the United States, Yemen and Zambia.

The report, supported by UNICEF partner H&M Foundation, will be launched at a high-level event, between 11:00am-12:30pm at The Every Woman Every Child Hub, North Lawn, United Nations, New York City during the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly.

For more information, please contact:

Georgina Thompson, UNICEF New York, Mobile: + 1 917 238 1559,

Media contacts

UNICEF Media Team
Tel: +1 212 303 7984


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