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Even before birth, brain development speeds along at a breakneck pace, with millions of neural connections happening by the minute. Bones grow, muscles strengthen, motor control increases, language blossoms, and a child’s first relationships form.
All of this groundwork for everything that follows — starting and staying in school, growing into young adulthood and entering the workforce, becoming parents, and making a positive mark on the world.
That is, if.
Only if that life has begun with certain conditions present.
Safety. A loving, responsive caregiver. Learning opportunities and stimulation. Access to nutrition and health care.
For any child, the conditions present (or absent) in the early years have long-term effects on his or her development. In fact, many issues facing adults in impoverished communities trace back to those early childhood years.
In households affected by extreme poverty or HIV, when caregivers face difficulties providing for the needs of the children in their care, let alone their own needs, frustration can lead them to cope in unhealthy ways — through abuse or neglect, or even by placing their children into exploitative situations.
When young children live under those conditions over time, they suffer long-term consequences to their learning, behavior and both physical and mental health, including lower test scores in adolescence and greater risk of heart disease in adulthood.
At ChildFund, the goals of our Early Childhood Development programs are to help the youngest children develop at their potential, enjoy good physical and mental health, live in supportive communities and be part of stable households that interact in nonviolent ways.
Thus, prevention of violence and exploitation is a strong focus in our work with children of this age, combining home- and center-based interventions aimed at strengthening caregiver-child relationships as well as families’ economic security. In doing so, we promote conditions where love flourishes rather than desperation.
The benefits of high-quality programs for babies and young children are not limited to families but have greater impact on society as a whole. Early childhood programs have been found to be the most strategic investment for education. According to the World Bank, for every dollar invested, there is a return of between $4 and $9 toward a healthier, more productive and more peaceful society. And there is evidence that quality services for the youngest children also promote gender and socioeconomic equality.