Strong Lifelong Health Begins in the Earliest Years

Aug 24, 2010

By Teresa Lim

In the past decade, an emerging base of research in the sciences, such as neuroscience, molecular biology, and genomics, has significantly expanded our understanding of child development and adult outcomes. As this research base grows, so does the evidence demonstrating that early childhood is a critical period of growth and development. The Center on the Developing Child, in collaboration with the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and the National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs, has released a new paper, The Foundations of Lifelong Health Are Built in Early Childhood, which highlights the importance of the early years in setting the stage for sound and lasting health and well-being.

The paper builds on previous science-based research that studied the links between early experiences and brain development as well as other biological processes and systems. This previous research revealed that positive early experiences are critical to strengthening a child's physical and cognitive development, while exposure to stressful events and environments can impair this development. In the latter case, early childhood adversities can cause physiological disruptions that interfere with the formation of brain architecture and various biological systems, such as the cardiovascular and immune systems. These disruptions can lead children to develop hypertension, diabetes, or other diseases that last into adulthood.

To succeed in school and beyond, young children need a strong, healthy foundation. The new paper finds that the foundations for lifelong health begin forming very early - starting with the well-being of a mother before pregnancy and continuing through early childhood. To build this foundation, young children need three essential components: stable, responsive relationships; safe, supportive environments; and appropriate nutrition. The paper presents a framework for reexamining the role that early childhood policies and programs, as well as caregivers and communities, can play in supporting these components. Comprised of four overarching elements, the framework identifies key considerations for understanding the biology of health in early childhood and addressing young children's health needs. 

To promote lifelong health, states need to focus on both the physical and mental well-being of young children. Child care settings provide a strategic location for reaching many vulnerable children and their families who may not have access to adequate health care and other resources. States can use child care settings to link families to comprehensive services and establish standards to ensure that young children are cared for in healthy and safe environments. In addition, 48 states have grants through the Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems (ECCS) Initiative to help build systems for young children with five components: access to health care and medical homes, socio-emotional and mental health, early care and education, parenting education, and family support.

As the evidence mounts on the importance of early childhood, it becomes clearer that supporting children in the early years is an effective approach to ensuring that children grow to become healthy, flourishing adults.

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