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Early-childhood development offers a brighter future to entire nations

July 30, 2018
Peter Laugharn and Steve Davis 
Seattle Times

The World Health Organization just unveiled an initiative that could improve millions of children’s lives and boost the global economy by trillions of dollars.

The initiative, known as the Nurturing Care Framework for Early Childhood Development, seeks to change how we raise infants and toddlers. Children’s experiences during their first three years of life heavily influence their well-being as adults, according to a growing body of research.

Today, millions of children lack the nutritional, educational and emotional support they need to develop into healthy, productive members of society. The Framework could help governments, nonprofits and families change this unfortunate status quo.

Children’s brains may not develop fully when they don’t receive “nurturing care,” which includes good health, adequate nutrition, safety and security, responsive caregiving, and opportunities for stimulation and learning. The period from birth to age three is a critical window of opportunity, since 80 percent of the brain forms during these years.

About 250 million young children in low- and middle-income countries lack nurturing care. Tens of millions of children in the United States and Europe face similar challenges. These children face difficulties in school. Poor educational outcomes reduce their future earnings and impact the health and well-being of entire families and societies.

Early childhood intervention programs could transform these children’s lives and help them achieve their full potential.

Consider one study of stunted children in disadvantaged areas of Jamaica. Every week for two years, trained health workers visited the children and their mothers. The workers provided parenting tips and tried to develop the children’s cognitive and social skills.

Twenty years later, researchers interviewed the children. Those who had received the intervention had higher cognitive scores and earned 25 percent more annually than people who didn’t receive the intervention. In fact, they earned as much as non-stunted children from the same area.

Or consider an experiment in rural Uganda. Mothers and their children attended peer-led group meetings focused on child-raising best practices and ways to improve maternal health. Children who participated had far higher cognitive and language scores than those who did not attend.


Peter Laugharn serves as president and CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. 
Steve Davis serves as the president and CEO of PATH, based in Seattle.