If you were asked: what does a child in the first thousand days need? Fairly quickly you could describe what an infant needs. It isn’t one thing – it is a range. And it isn’t only one demographic of child that needs this. All children everywhere need a combination of things to thrive and develop. The ‘building blocks’ of good health, adequate nutrition, protection from harm and opportunities for early learning are needed in abundance in order for the child’s brain to grow, enabling lifelong flourishing.
What is often overlooked, however, is that all of this is provided through relationship. The building blocks do not exist in a vacuum. The people that provide these building blocks are the primary caregivers. Intimate family members are the people who are most consistently present in a young child’s life. As such, they are the primary providers of nurturing care. Stated another way: families are at the centre of nurturing care.
Crucially, it is the nature of the relationship between these caregivers and baby that makes the biggest difference. All children everywhere need a nurturing, caring relationship with a responsive caregiver. This responsive nurturing care is what the infant’s brain expects and depends upon for healthy development. This is the basis for all the other building blocks
What is responsive care?
At the heart of responsive care is a bond. A bond that ensures that caregivers are sensitive, responsive, predictable and loving. This facilitates the child’s early social and emotional development, promotes secure emotional attachment between the infant and parent and helps their child to learn. The child is a living, feeling, social being. Simply providing the building blocks by rote, or like ticking off a list does not create the space for baby to truly flourish. The interactions between caregivers and baby are to be emotionally supportive and responsive. Ideally, primary caregivers are attuned to what baby needs and supplies it in a caring, nurturing way. This effective caregiving is observant of the child’s cues, interprets what the child wants and needs, and responds consistently and appropriately. This is responsive care.
Baby needs LOVE for growth. As captured in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, love is not merely a feeling, but a range of actions, decisions and postures. This is what baby needs from caregivers: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Flourishing children need flourishing caregivers
The well-being of the mother, father and other primary caregiver becomes of crucial importance. When parents are doing well, they can provide the building blocks in a way that is responsive, nurturing and love-filled. Conversely, when caregivers are not doing well and are faced with adversity, they do not consistently, adequately or sustainably provide what the child needs. Caregivers need resources, information and services in order to be good caregivers. Families are at the foundation of providing what baby needs, and so they need support to do this well and consistently.
When we think of the health and flourishing of children in the First Thousand Days, we are to think first of the well-being of the parents or caregivers.
Caregivers need community
When parents or caregivers are held in nurturing, caring, supportive communities, their well-being and coping mechanisms improve and they are enabled to provide the nurturing, responsive caregiving. As the adult is connected, engaged, seen, and loved; they in turn can provide that for their children. This isn’t about parents being perfect, but rather about imperfect parents held in loving community to support them as they love their children, feeling connected, affirmed and networked within community. Caregivers need to be in these social networks, feel empowered to make decisions for the best of the child.
ALL parents and caregivers need people around them looking after them, ensuring their positive wellbeing and coping. All parents need encouragement, affirmation and correct knowledge from a loving, supportive caring community. Whether the baby was planned, unplanned, conceived in love, or not; well-resourced or in poverty; adopted; fostered; single parented etc every family everywhere needs this. It isn’t that nurturing care is only needed by poor babies. No, all children everywhere need nurturing, responsive care.
It takes a village to raise a child. This is not a mere aphorism, but a powerful truth. Watch Liz Lian in this TEDx explain the heart of this. She challenges us to answer the question: What can you do this week to be part of the village of a mom, dad or primary caregiver?
This is where the church comes in
Knowing that the Trinity exists in perfect unity, love and community, it makes sense that followers of Christ are placed into community. Not only are believers adopted into the family of God, by which we can call God our Father, we are placed as brothers and sisters alongside every other believer. This makes children in the faith community everyone’s nieces or nephews.
There exists a deeper motivation to utilize the natural relationships in a community of faith to surround caregivers in a web of love, care and support. As the child is held by caregivers, so the caregivers are held by a community of faith. When churches gather, they create safe, loving and caring spaces for mothers and fathers to feel cared for, supported and affirmed in their role. And as individuals, believers can draw in those who are feeling disconnected, like they don’t belong and are not supported. Watch this short video on the importance and opportunity of raising children in community.
The church, as both individuals and community, is ideally positioned, equipped and mandated to be the most impactful player in the space of supporting and encouraging caregivers. In the time where a lack of responsive caring is the biggest problem in South Africa, the church can be the greatest agent of healing. At a time where parents in South Africa are more isolated and disconnected from supportive, loving community and their ability to provide responsive caring is hampered, the church can be the greatest agent of healing.
We will need both the church together, and individual believers responding to create breadth and depth of care to see these families flourish in an ongoing way. Individual Christ-followers can reach pockets of the workplace, classrooms, the school pickup and relationships that the structured church cannot. This helps us to see that the First Thousand Days is something that every Christ-follower’s business and opportunity.
This isn’t about being a savior to a parent or caregiver. It is more about being a consistent, caring presence to parents during a tumultuous and trying season of their lives. It is about seeing them, helping them to feel like they belong and creating a space for them to reflect on the season they are in, with its mix of joys and struggles. It is truly remarkable how powerful these relationships are in strengthening parents and caregivers.
Grow your awareness. Read up on the first thousand days. Explore the rest of our resources and the Common Good Early Life page to grow your knowledge of this once-in-a-lifetime window of development
Who is in your sphere of influence? Who are the people you know that are in the First Thousand Days season? What can you do to be supportive and engaging? Whose village can you be part of? Pray through which families are in your sphere that you can be more intentionally caring for in this time.
How can you display the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 to parents in the First Thousand Days?
We have a range of resources to help you to do that, rich with ideas and helpful tips. If you know someone who is, pregnant, in the first three months, up to the first year, or over one year old, find out what you can do be doing practically. Be someone’s champion!
Each and every child
All children everywhere need responsive care and strong relationships in which the building blocks are provided. And every caregiver everywhere needs to be supported, loved, cared for and connected to a broader community. And every church everywhere, every believer everywhere, can play a part in creating the spaces for parents to grow, to flourish and excel in providing what their child needs. Allow the God who is Love to move you to Love parents, so that they may Love their children well.