Updated: Nov 1, 2021
The formative first 1,000 days
Contributed by Dr Gina Dahel
Head of Department for IMC Children’s
Why are the first 1,000 days so important?
According to UNICEF, the time from conception to a child’s second birthday is a unique period of opportunity, where the foundations of optimal health, growth and neurodevelopment are established.
The human brain continues to develop and change throughout life. 80% of our brain’s physical development happens during the first 3 years of age. During this critical time, the brain forms the connections it needs to learn, think and process information. These connections, called synapses, form at a super-fast rate of 700 per second in the first few years. During this phase, repeated actions strengthen these connections and unused connections are ‘pruned away’, also known as the ‘use it or lose it’ stage. The first 1,000 days in particular are therefore a critical time to develop vital language skills and higher processing skills such as attention and problem solving.
There are many factors that can positively affect your child’s development. Factors like optimal nutrition, positive family relationships and a positive environment, all play a key role in maximising your child’s development by stimulating and protecting the brain. Conversely, exposure to negative factors can actually decrease those connections and inhibit your child from developing or reaching their potential. These adverse factors include exposure to the following during pregnancy or after birth :
- Negative environment - such as stress, violence or neglect;
- Toxins such as alcohol, cigarettes, drugs;
- Nutritional deficiency;
- Lack of social interaction and engagement
One negative experience does not automatically mean your child will be impacted, but repeated negative experiences will lead to adverse health and wellbeing outcomes later on in life.
How can I make sure my child is developing as expected?
Many parents will worry and wonder if their child is developing as expected. We should always remember that babies develop at their own pace. Even so, it can be very hard for us as parents, not to compare our child to others.
The first 2 years are a critical time for development and it is especially important that any delay during this time is identified as early as possible. Studies show that early identification and intervention positively alters the child’s long term development trajectory. Early diagnosis has a positive impact on a child’s school performance and IQ. It can help to improve their physical health and reduce the risk of mental health issues. It also improves their relationships and increases their sense of self-worth.
Ensuring your child is regularly assessed by a paediatrician, is the best way of ensuring your child is achieving critical skills at expected times. We call these ‘milestones’. Delays in milestones can help us identify which children need further evaluation and help.
Diagnosis and management of delay depends on a number of factors, but early intervention ensures the best outcome for you and your child. Regular monitoring will also enable your paediatrician to track your child’s growth and physical development. These appointments provide an opportunity to discuss with your doctor essential information about nutrition, introducing solids and dealing with fussy behaviours, which can all have an impact on brain development and physical health.
How can parents boost development?
One of the most influential factors for child development is parental interaction and stimulation. The following top tips are evidence based ways shown to positively impact your child’s development -
1) Love and security:
Many studies have demonstrated the strong link between parental affection in childhood and long term health and happiness. Children who grow up in a nurturing and safe environment, demonstrate higher levels of academic performance, self-esteem and employability. In addition, they are less likely to suffer mental health and behavioural problems later on in life.
2) Adequate nutrition:
Nutrition is most important during the third trimester of pregnancy and the first 2 years of life. Optimal nutrition is not only required for physical growth, but essential for the rapidly growing brain and immune system. Studies demonstrate nutritional deficiencies, such as iron deficiency, can have irreversible effects on brain development, physical and mental health.
3) Early language exposure:
The peak age for language connections to be formed is 8 months, so waiting until your child says their first word is already too late. Expose your child to language by talking, reading and singing to your child from day 1.
4) Give your child ample time to play and explore:
Play is the most important thing for a child after their basic needs. It helps them develop their motor skills and problem solving skills. As your child grows, choose age appropriate toys, games and puzzles for them to interact with. Spend time playing with your child as they learn through reciprocated play and by copying you.
5) Ensure your child has a safe area to play:
Babies learn so much through exploring both indoors and outdoors. Ensure they have a safe space where they can play and explore by minimising hazards and dangers. Children are curious creatures so it’s not surprising 80% of accidents happen at home. Ensure you have taken the necessary steps to baby proof your home.
6) Minimise screen time:
Leading health organisations such as WHO (World Health Organisation) and AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics), suggest no screen time for less than 2 year olds. Facetime and video calls are exempt from this as they come under social interaction. Screens can have many uses, but before the age of 2 years, children simply cannot learn from them. Young children learn through reciprocated behaviour – an action is rewarded by a positive response from a toy or a person. Screens do not work like this, so this two way reciprocal learning is lost. In addition, the sensory information from screens are too much and too quick for babies brains to process, so minimal learning takes place.
All parents want the very best for their child. Ensuring your child has what they need from the time of conception and beyond will undoubtedly ensure they have the best possible start in life.
Details about the writer:
Dr. Gina Dahel, is a children’s Doctor at International Medical Clinic, Singapore. She graduated and trained in the UK, and has over 15 years of clinical paediatric experience. She has her own online parenting platform, designed to provide parents with evidence based information on parenting and child health. Her educational content can be found on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube at Dr Gina Parenting. Her website is accessible at https://drginaparenting.com