Interventions in early childhood can have a significant impact on improving inequalities and helping children grow to their full potential. That is the conclusion of a new series of papers released in The Lancet today which aim to identify gaps in implementation and coverage of interventions, calculate the economic costs of missed investment in early learning programmes, and present new evidence on the causes and effects of developmental inequities in early childhood.

The 2007 Lancet Series on Child Development found that over 200 million children were not developing their full potential. Four risks for poor child development were identified (stunting, iron deficiency, iodine deficiency, and lack of stimulation), and evidence was presented that interventions could be effective, particularly if of sufficient intensity, duration and quality. 

The 2011 series examines risks and protective factors for early child development, and new evidence on program effectiveness from 40 studies and program evaluations.

It finds that poor nutrition, maternal and family stress, and poverty affect brain development from the prenatal period or earlier.  Exclusive breastfeeding and early parent-to-child stimulation are key protective factors, along with maternal nutrition and education of mothers. Outside the home, good quality pre-schooling, conditional cash transfer schemes and educational media are also important.

The authors conclude that early childhood is the most effective time to prevent inequalities before disparities widen, particularly for the poorest children.

UNICEF is now calling for action to ensure that effective interventions are financed and integrated into programmes that aim to improve maternal and child health outcomes.

Data from 73 low and middle-income countries show that getting a quarter of children into preschool or early childhood education programs would have an eventual economic benefit of US$10.6 billion. If half of children attended pre-school that figure rises to US$33 billion.

Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, urges: “The Lancet papers present new evidence on the causes and consequences of developmental inequities in early childhood—and the exceptional opportunity we have to redress them. We must not ignore this evidence. Instead, we must act on it.”

Click here to read the papers (requires Lancet subscription).

Click here to visit the UNICEF Innocenti Research Center.