Zero to Five: The Time That Determines a Child’s Future

By Corinne Mazzeo, ChildFund Health and Nutrition Advisor

The 5th Birthday and Beyond campaign recognizes the importance of investing in the first five years of life to ensure that children survive and thrive well beyond their fifth birthday. ChildFund is one of more than 100 nonprofit organizations, businesses and philanthropic groups participating in this effort.

5-year-old girls from Senegal

Five-year-old friends Racky (left) and Fafa of Senegal.

The period from conception to 5 years is a critical time in human development. Starting even before a child is born, the brain is developing. In fact, the brain is developing most rapidly — and is most vulnerable — during these first few years of life.

Before a child turns 3, his or her brain is 2.5 times as active as the average adult brain, making more than 700 new synapses (connections between nerve cells that transmit information) each second. This defines a child’s health and developmental trajectory and determines a great deal of his or her future.

This is why investing in programs that target infants and young children — the age group from conception to 5 years — is so important. Children aren’t the only ones who benefit; so do their families and society as a whole. For every dollar invested in early childhood development, there is a return of between $4 and $17, which contributes to a healthier and more peaceful society. Also, according to the World Bank, high-quality services for infants and young children promote gender and socioeconomic equality.

When considering how to design high-quality services for this age group, it is important to recognize that all aspects of a young child’s life are interconnected. Their physical health depends on good nutrition, and their home lives strongly influence their emotional well-being.

Let’s look at nutrition and brain development. If a baby is undernourished, she can’t learn as well as she should, she can’t fully interact with her peers, and she can’t explore. The link between nutrition and physical growth may seem obvious — how often do we tell our kids, “Eat your vegetables so you will be strong” — but nutrition is also essential for brain development. Just as the body needs nourishment to grow and develop, so does the brain.

Corinne, age 5

Corinne at age 5.

In recent years, we have learned more about brain development, and it is clear that children need more than just good nutrition to reach their full physical and cognitive potential.

Another critical piece is stimulation, which is necessary to build and strengthen the brain’s architecture. Children’s early experiences with caregivers and their environment have a direct impact on their physical and mental health throughout their lives. Love, affection, interaction and play — along with fulfilled health and nutritional needs — create the attachment that stimulates healthy growth and development.

As a result, leaders around the world — including ChildFund — are increasingly focused on the integration of nutrition and stimulation. A growing body of research suggests that when these two areas of intervention are combined, the whole is greater than the two parts. An infant benefits more than if the interventions are delivered separately. So, what does this look like in real life for a mother and her baby?

One example is that well-baby visits address the interconnected needs of parent and child. Usually, when a mother brings her baby to a clinic for growth monitoring, she receives education and counseling on infant feeding practices (and, ideally, about her own nutrition as well). But this meeting can also be an opportunity to discuss the importance of stimulation to facilitate the baby’s brain development.

For example, a health worker can encourage the mother to actively engage with her baby and talk to him during mealtimes. This simple message builds upon the existing counseling about nutrition and can help reinforce the importance of responsive caregiving. When the mother is empowered to interact with her child this way, the baby’s cognitive development improves — and so do his chances for a brighter future.

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