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Sarath Perera/Sri Lanka

The importance of ages 0-3 years

In the first moments, months and years of life, every touch, movement and emotion in a young child’s life translates into an explosion of electrical and chemical activity in the brain, as billions of cells are organizing themselves into networks requiring trillions of synapses between them (see Panel 1). These early childhood years are when experiences and interactions with parents, family members and other adults influence the way a child’s brain develops, with as much impact as such factors as adequate nutrition, good health and clean water. And how the child develops during this period sets the stage for later success in school and the character of adolescence and adulthood.

When infants are held and touched in soothing ways, they tend to thrive. Warm, responsive care seems to have a protective function, to some extent ‘immunizing’ an infant against the effects of stress experienced later in life. But the brain’s malleability during these early years also means that when children do not get the care they need, or if they experience starvation, abuse or neglect, their brain development may be compromised (Panel 1).

The effects of what happens during the prenatal period and during the earliest months and years of a child’s life can last a lifetime1. All the key ingredients of emotional intelligence — confidence, curiosity, intentionality, self-control, relatedness, capacity to communicate and cooperativeness — that determine how a child learns and relates in school and in life in general, depend on the kind of early care he or she receives from parents, pre-school teachers and caregivers.2 It is, of course, never too late for children to improve in their health and development, to learn new skills, overcome fears or change their beliefs. 3 But, as is more often the case, when children don’t get the right start, they never catch up or reach their full potential.

Why invest? The rights of children and the cause of human development4 are unassailable reasons for investing in early childhood. The neurosciences provide another rationale that’s hard to refute as they demonstrate the influences of the first three years on the rest of a child’s life.

In addition5, there are also compelling economic arguments: increased productivity over a lifetime and a better standard of living when the child becomes an adult, later cost-savings in remedial education and health care and rehabilitation services and higher earnings for parents and caregivers who are freer to enter the labour force.

And there are social reasons as well: Intervening in the very earliest years helps reduce the social and economic disparities and gender inequalities that divide a society and contributes to including those traditionally excluded.

And political reasons: A country’s position in the global economy depends on the competencies of its people and those competencies are set early in life — before the child is three years old.6

Brain development: Some critical periods


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