Anyone who has played a role in loving, nurturing and caring for a child during the early years, will know intuitively how important this period is. The pace of development is rapid – every day you notice the child doing something different, doing something better. The science tells us that in these First 1000 Days, a baby’s brain is developing faster than at any other time in a person’s life. Every time you provide the child with something new to taste, see, touch or hear, new neural pathways are formed. A part of the brain lights up! The brain is taking shape in a way that will lay down foundations for thinking, feeling, moving and learning.
Babies are highly responsive. You smile at them, they smile back. You babble and make affectionate sounds, they copy you and do the same. Not only are they responsive, they also seek out your attention. They laugh and cry, intending for you to take care of their needs for comfort, play and food. This interaction between the caregiver and child contributes to another part of brain development which helps to ensure social competence later in life. They are learning to trust, and the hardwiring for this happens through these countless social interactions. Importantly, their biological stress management systems are developing too. Too much stress – also known as toxic stress – and the child’s mental and physical health can be seriously affected. But regular food, love, and care builds a healthy capacity for coping and thriving.
Even before they actually begin to talk, babies’ brains will be making millions of connections to the different sounds that the people around them make – in fact the neural connections for language development peak at around 6 months of age! Babies that hear lots of words, through stories and engagement with people around them, will develop a much larger vocabulary, and will have a massive boost in their literacy journey.
The ‘Heckman Equation’ showed that every Rand invested into supporting children in their first thousand days has an exponential return for society at large. This makes good investment sense – who wouldn’t want to put money and time and effort into something that returns so much more than the initial investment! Supporting caregivers to ensure that their baby has food, safety, stimulation and great nutrition, will transform the trajectory of our country as a whole by ensuring all children get a chance to fulfill their amazing potential, even in contexts of massive inequality and poverty.