Age appropriate interventions actually begin well before birth, with a mother’s health (2) and prevention of mother-to-child transmission, and continue with safe breastfeeding practices, and fostering the developmental building blocks of healthy childhood. The World Health Organization asserts that “early childhood is the most important phase for overall development throughout the lifespan.” (3) Experiences during this developmental stage affect brain development and have life-long consequences on health, education and economic participation. Yet, in many countries, after completion of childhood immunizations, young children are mostly absent from the reach of clinical and community health providers and they do not receive social and cognitive stimulation provided by early childhood development (ECD) programs.
By losing mothers and children following immunizations until the first day of school, important opportunities for early child development are lost. Significant health and social service investments in systems strengthening to monitor, track, and follow-up on care and referrals for mothers and their young children are essential, particularly for the most vulnerable families.
Key activities to support early childhood development
- Strengthen parent-child relationships, especially for young, first time parents – provide training in supportive parenting skills and the developmental needs of young children.
- Promote birth registration for all infants to guarantee their legal protection and safeguard their rights.
- Ensure families’ access to food and nutrition programs for children’s developing brains, bodies, and immune systems. Integrate nutritional support into Early Childhood Development (ECD), school-based programs and ART services.
- Empower families to meet the essential needs of children by promoting household economic strengthening and money management training.
- Organize community caregiver support groups to address caregivers’ emotional and psychological needs. Research indicates that caregivers in support groups reported ‘better family functioning, more positive feelings towards children in their care and less social marginalization’ than those not in support groups.
- Establish and support early childhood development (EDC) centers in communities.
- Strengthen social support and encourage regular home visits for highly vulnerable families. Help families to integrate basic child survival and child protection activities such as WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) into their routines to reduce childhood vulnerability, illness and death.
- Integrate services and referrals between antenatal care programs, early childhood development programs, voluntary counseling and testing, prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT), and anti-retroviral treatment (ART) to ensure access to a continuum of care.