The first thousand days of a child’s life, from conception to two years old, is a critically sensitive period of rapid growth and change. This window of development sets the foundation for a child to reach his or her potential.
Optimal development depends on the availability of supportive and nurturing environments and quality relationships in the earliest months and years of a child’s life.
Rapid brain growth:
This stage sees the brain develop at a never-to-be-repeated pace. Neurons are connecting at a rate of a million times per second *. This links together different parts of the brain so that we can perform elaborate day-to-day tasks like expressing our emotions, reasoning, applying logic, speaking a language, recognising faces and so on. The more integrated and widely connected the brain is, the more there is for the brain to build on for new learning.
All day, every day, the child’s brain is primed to absorb what is happening around him or her, focusing all its energy on its development and growth. These are foundations for every human to think, feel, move and learn.
Social competence is being fostered
The parts of the brain that help foster social competence are growing rapidly in this phase. Babies seek out their parent’s attention and interaction– through crying, laughing, smiling and babbling. When caregivers interact in a responsive, emotionally supportive way, it stimulates baby’s development. It also builds healthy attachment and babies learn to build relationships that are trustworthy, a fundamental need for social competence later in life. These early relationships model later peer and adult relationships, making this a critical area of development for the young child
Babies need a language-rich environment where they will hear many words in order to foster the neural connections for language. It is easy to assume language development happens later, but the peak of brain development for this skill is at around six months of age. Simple investment in talking, singing, reading to your baby gives them a massive boost when they are learning to read at school.
The pathways are set
At this remarkable time of brain development, the pathway, or trajectory, of a person’s development is established. Brains continue to develop and grow after this phase of life. This is known as brain plasticity – the ability for the brain to learn from experiences and to change, making new neural pathways. The difference is: it requires more work to bring that change later on. A child’s brain plasticity will never be as good as in the early years of their life.
What is needed for the greatest chance of this foundation being laid?
We know from experts that all children, everywhere, from pregnancy to two years and beyond need the following building blocks:
- Good health
- Adequate nutrition
- Protection from harm
- Opportunities for early learning (stimulation)
- Responsive caregiving (love)
This is of crucial importance. The primary caregiver is to supply the above building blocks in loving interactions, responding to the cues of the child and being emotionally supportive.
All children, everywhere, need to be held in nurturing, caring, loving relationships with a responsive caregiver like mother, father, granny or aunt. This is the foundation for all the other inputs a child needs to grow and thrive.
The infant’s brain expects and depends on this responsive, nurturing care for healthy development and the family is at the center of this provision.
What if a child doesn’t get the building blocks in a responsive, caregiving relationship?
It is estimated that 50% of children in South Africa will not receive what they need in the First Thousand Days of life to reach their full, God-given potential. This means that for every two children born in South Africa, one child’s brain is wired to learn, to grow and to succeed and the other will have wiring that will make that learning and growing a struggle, leading to survival, not thriving.
Every parent wants their child to thrive. Yet there are several factors and conditions that negatively impact on parents’ capacity and consistency in providing these building blocks: poverty, diseases, stress, exposure to violence, psychosocial risks and disrupted caregiving.
Pay attention to the beginning
“When you pay attention to the beginning of the story, you can change the whole story”. Certain factors will promote healthy brain development and others will undermine and stunt it. The good news is that we know what supports and promotes healthy brain development, and the protective factors that counter and even mitigate some of the risks. This means that children who are born into adversity can still thrive. There is so much we can do to help South Africa reach her full potential. It starts small, it starts young, and it starts with you and me.
The great opportunity in The First Thousand Days
Read how science explains what children need to thrive
Explore the unique challenges families face in this season
Read how the church is ideally positioned and equipped to be the village around a family
During the First Thousand Days, the brain grows to 80% of its adult size.
Lindland E, Richter L, Tomlinson M, Mkwanazi N, Watt K. Early Means Early: Mapping the Gaps Between Experts, Stakeholder, and Public Understanding of Early Childhood Development in South Africa. A Frameworks Research Report. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute; 2016.