The incredible opportunity

A new future for South Africa’s children is possible.

The First Thousand Days of a child’s life, from conception until they turn two years old, is a critically sensitive period of rapid growth and change. A window of development to set the foundation for a child to reach his or her potential. 

To give the brain the best opportunity to develop well, it needs the following five things on an ongoing basis: Good nutrition, good health, a sense of safety, opportunities for early learning and responsive, nurturing care. These are the essential ‘building blocks’ for brain development. 

Invest early

To see a brighter future for our children and our nation, we need to invest in the First Thousand Days. Working to lay the foundations for optimal health and neurodevelopment at this stage will generate powerful returns for the whole of society, and is less costly, at both an individual and societal level, than trying to improve things later on. 

According to the National Integrated Early Childhood Development Plan of South Africa, the First Thousand Days offers a “unique and invaluable window of opportunity to secure the optimal development of the child, and by extension, the positive developmental trajectory of a country” (NIECDP, 2015, p. 19).

Risks and protective factors

The tragic reality in South Africa is that up to half of our country’s children are not consistently receiving enough of what they need for optimal development. There are a range of risk factors at play, including: poverty, malnutrition and stunting, infectious diseases, environmental toxins, stress, violence, psychosocial risks, disrupted caregiving and disabilities. These are predictors – but not guarantees – of poor early childhood development.  

At the same time as these risk factors are at play, there are protective factors that can help the child develop well even in the face of adversity. A significant protective factor is a strong, safeguarding and stimulating relationship with a parent or another other primary caregiver. Even in the context of challenging circumstances, this relationship provides the buffering protection that can help reduce toxic stress in the young child. 

So, when we think of the flourishing of a child, we must also put the spotlight on the caregiver; their wellbeing is central to the wellbeing of their young child. 

When parents are held in caring communities, their wellbeing and coping mechanisms improve, enabling them to provide nurturing, responsive caregiving to their child. All parents need encouragement, affirmation and access to the accurate knowledge from a loving and supportive community. They need to belong and to be connected into this kind of community to ensure their ability to care effectively for their baby. And all children everywhere need the kind of care that is nurturing and responsive. 

Conclusion

“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 many children face. This means that babies 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.