World wide roughly 200 million children under the age of five, in low and middle income countries, will fail to meet basic developmental milestones. Such deficits affect health across the lifespan, the ability to contribute to the national economy, and the ability to stop the cycle of poverty. With this knowledge in mind the United Nations made a point of linking their sustainable development goals to children’s issues, specifically early childhood development (ECD). Recently the G20, with Argentina as the new chair, have placed an emphasis on ECD in the international community by adding it to their own sustainability goals. The G20 has recognized that ECD must be incorporated into all programs, not just within child centric programs and that an emphasis must be placed on children under five years of age.
Programmatic areas have remained siloed focusing on nutrition and ensuring school aged children receive an education. While these initiatives play a role in ECD they only focus on topical areas and do not formally integrate ECD, newborn to age five, into programmatic work. The G20 has created a case for cross collaboration within programmatic and policy level work, even laying out funding streams for such work. This puts the G20 in line with World Health Organization guidelines, including guidelines around integration of ECD in emergency situations. When you are already servicing families and their children, especially in low income programmatic settings, it is easy to add in basic ECD education. For example, when providing breastfeeding support to mothers this is a wonderful opportunity to briefly discuss the need to talk and sing to the child in order to develop language acquisition. Another example is to provide pamphlets, that match the health literacy level of the community, around positive parenting and age appropriate milestones at an immunization drive.
ECD doesn’t just apply to children – it applies directly to the child’s environment: families, caregivers, and national leadership. ECD focuses a lot on positive parenting to encourage positive brain development and language acquisition. The World Health Organization just released a guideline that discusses nurturing care within ECD, highlighting strategies and policies focusing on the environment that impacts ECD. A really interesting piece that the G20 highlights is the need for better trained child care providers. The G20 ties it back to economics – if a family, mothers in particular, feels comfortable leaving their child in the care of someone else they are able to contribute to their local and national economy in a greater way. There is also the money saving aspect for countries who invest in programs that promote ECD in children under the age of five. As discussed in the literature, children’s brains are rapidly developing arguably from in the womb through the first 1,000 days of life, and programs that focus on this age group provide a larger cost saving than programs that focus on children over five. This is because potential developmental delays are prevented, thus not as much money is needed to get a child back on their developmental track. Also, at such a young age with the focus predominantly being on environmental factors the cost is solely around training and educating front line staff, not actual school aged interventions.
Again – it is great news to have a group like G20 make ECD a priority, especially for children under five. It brings the topic back to the front of the global health stage and proves that it can be easily incorporated into programmatic work.