Why this matters

Advances in brain science have shown that early childhood - pregnancy to five - has implications for our development that go far beyond our physical abilities. In fact, this represents one of the best investments we can make for the long-term health, wellbeing and happiness of our society.

Man walking dog

Shaping our lives

Over three decades of scientific research has shown that what happens in early childhood helps to create the foundations for our future health and happiness.

Our ability as adults to manage our emotions, to concentrate, to handle pressure, to form relationships, to believe in ourselves, to trust other people, to learn effectively– all of these things and more are influenced by our earliest experiences. These in turn will impact on our life satisfaction and outcomes, including our socioeconomic status, physical and mental health, and how we parent the next generation.

This is because our brain is at its most receptive and adaptable when we are young, and although we continue to adapt and evolve throughout our lives, this requires more effort as we age.

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How our brains develop

We are born with billions of brain cells. However, it is the connections we make between these cells that help us to do everything from talking and walking to learning and reasoning. And these connections form most rapidly during early childhood – more than a million per second in the first few years.

While genes play a huge role, our development is not pre-determined: the context in which we develop matters too. That's because the connections which are made and strengthened in the brain in the early years (as well as those that are not made), are based on and driven by our experiences. This means the world around a young child is really important. 

So how does this work in practice?

The timing of key experiences or the absence of them can influence the course of the developing brain. Language is a good example of this. By talking to babies, even before they’re able to respond, we’re giving their brains a signal that language is important. This in turn encourages their brains to strengthen the connections which deal with language, accelerating their language development.

On the flip side, if babies don’t receive this kind of engagement, then their brains can be slower to make the connections related to language and this inhibits their language development. 

Going beyond the physical

What the science above makes clear, is that we need to go beyond physical needs and focus on social and emotional needs too. Nurtured children are the consequence of nurturing adults: to invest in children means also investing in the people around them — the parents, carers, grandparents, early years workforce and more. This is even more significant when you consider that all the brain development is sequential.

grandmother in street holding child

The connections that form first are those that relate to our basic senses like touch, smell and sight. Children use these senses to interact with the world, which then allows them to build more complex brain connections as they develop speech, reasoning, and self-control. Because early brain development and connections are so important for later development, early childhood really does represent a golden opportunity to build solid footings for the future. And whatever shapes us as individuals, shapes our future society.

Watch this video to see how brain architecture is built

Synapses

The cost of lost opportunity

The impact of early childhood isn't just limited to who we are as individuals, it also influences the wider society we create. By investing in the start of life, we can have a far greater impact on a child’s future outcomes than by addressing issues further down the line. The London School of Economics has estimated the cost of lost opportunity in England is at least:

£16.13
billon
per year

This is the cost to society of the remedial steps we take to address issues – from children in care to short and long-term mental and physical health issues – that might have been avoided through action in early childhood.

Find out more about the science behind early childhood