The first 1,000 days: a golden opportunity

September 08, 2017 - 09:00

The most important thing for human beings is our brain. Yet when we have young babies we are not caring for the development of their brains the way we care for their bodies. Brain development should be our biggest concern for all of us because it lays the foundation for a child future. It’s right to be a priority for government leaders as well as businesses.

By Youssouf Abdel-Jelil, UNICEF Representative in Việt Nam

Despite the importance of the brain to human life, too often we fail to care for the development of baby brains the way we do for their bodies. Brain development should also be a major priority for governments and business because it lays the foundation for a child’s future.

Scientific research published in the prestigious journal The Lancet clearly shows that the first 1,000 days of life – from conception to age three – open a golden window of opportunity. During this period, children’s brains can form 1,000 neural connections every second – a once in a lifetime pace – constituting the building blocks of every child’s future.

The science is clear about what a young brain needs to make those connections:

Nutrition: In the first years of life, a child’s brain consumes a lot of energy absorbed from food and good nutrition. Failure to receive nutrition can cause permanent damage to the brain and physical development. And yet, close to 25 per cent of children under five in Việt Nam suffer from stunted growth.

Stimulation: Children who are read to, talked to, sung to, played with will have better brain development – and a better chance to live a fuller, more productive life. Yet, in Việt Nam, only one in four children under five has at least three books at home.

Parenting: Good parenting is free of physical and verbal abuse. Violence, neglect and traumatic experiences produce high levels of hormones and stress for children, which limit brain connectivity. Yet in Việt Nam, more than two-thirds of children are negatively affected by violence at home.

Stimulation, nutrition, and parenting, all shape children’s futures – and affect the future of the country, its economy and its social development.

Việt Nam has adopted various laws, policies and plans supporting early childhood development. The Child Law, which came into effect in June 2017, is the key legal document for the development of Government strategies and actions on the protection, care and education of children. The Law on Health Insurance offers free healthcare for children under six years of age. The Education Law defines early childhood education as part of the national education system. The Labour Law stipulates six-month maternity leave for women.

Social protection

The Government of Việt Nam has made the right decision to commit to develop a nation-wide policy for early childhood development, bringing together different agencies that play a critical role in the life of a child. Recently, under the leadership of the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, five ministries and five key mass organisations have jointly developed the National Early Childhood Development Programme for the 2017-25 period.

A national consultative workshop is being held today to seek advice and opinions of various stakeholders on the draft programme, which aims to provide a comprehensive approach to policies and programmes for children from birth to eight years of age and for their parents and caregivers. The approach is designed to enable families to access multiple services for their children and for themselves in a cohesive way.

Failure to obtain strong Government commitment would come at a great cost with poor learning, lower wages, higher unemployment, and increased dependence on public assistance that weigh down economic and social progress for everyone.

We must also go beyond a policy and work together – governments, international organisations, civil society, the private sector – to invest adequate resources in programmes targeted at the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, focused on nutrition, stimulation, early learning, and parenting.

Globally, UNICEF, the World Bank and other partners have launched a new alliance to focus greater attention on the importance of early childhood development and to drive greater action to reach the vulnerable in society. This is also an excellent opportunity for global businesses to give this issue the profile, commitment and – most importantly – the targeted investment it deserves.

Business leaders can join governments, NGOs, academics, scientists, parents and caregivers, and to consider how their operations can support early childhood development – from policies that give parents more time to support their children’s development, to early childhood development facilities in their workplaces and beyond, especially in the communities in which they operate.

We cannot fail tomorrow’s generation for their abilities will drive tomorrow’s country. Their brain capacity and productivity will fuel tomorrow’s economy and their capacity to contribute will shape tomorrow’s Việt Nam. In Việt Nam, we say rightly, "Trẻ em hôm nay, thế giới ngày mai" (Children today, the world tomorrow).

Together, we can do more than shine a spotlight on the importance of early childhood development. We can commit to action.