A deep dive into the building blocks of Lifelong Health
Core concepts of early childhood development Video Series
The series studies how advances in science now give us a much better understanding of how early experiences impact our bodies and brains.
Why Does Early Health Matter?
Scientific evidence tell us the early years, particularly from birth to five years, are the most active period to establish healthy brain development. The quality of a child’s earliest environments and the availability of appropriate experiences at the right stages of development are crucial determinants of the way each child’s brain architecture develops.
“Early experiences are literally built into our bodies, for better or for worse.”
The resulting physiological adaptations or disruptions affect lifelong outcomes in learning, behavior, and both physical and mental well-being. Science tells us:
Early experiences are built into our bodies (PDF), creating biological “memories” that shape development, for better or for worse. (Center on the Developing Child. The Foundations of Lifelong Health (InBrief). Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.)
Toxic stress caused by significant adversity can undermine the development of the body’s stress response systems, and affect the architecture of the developing brain, the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and metabolic regulatory controls.
These physiological disruptions can persist far into adulthood and lead to lifelong impairments in both physical and mental health.
The Three Foundations of Lifelong Health
Extensive scientific research has identified three basic foundations of lifelong health that are laid down in early childhood.
A stable and responsive environment of relationships. These provide young children with consistent, nurturing, and protective interactions with adults, which help them develop capacities that promote learning and well-regulated stress response systems.
Safe and supportive physical, chemical, and built environments. These provide children with places that are free from toxins and fear, allow active and safe exploration, and offer their families opportunities to exercise and form social connections.
Sound and appropriate nutrition. This includes health-promoting food intake and eating habits, beginning with the future mother’s preconception nutritional status.
Early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence represent the 3 stages of child development. Each stage is organized around the primary tasks of development for that period.
Early childhood (usually defined as birth to year 8) is a time of tremendous physical, cognitive, socio-emotional and language development.
Middle childhood (usually defined as ages 6 to 12) is a time when children develop foundational skills for building healthy social relationships and learn roles that will prepare them for adolescence and adulthood.
Why Does Early and Middle Childhood Matter?
Evidence shows that experiences in early and middle childhood are extremely important for a child’s healthy development and lifelong learning. How a child develops during this time affects future cognitive, social, emotional, language, and physical development, which in turn influences school readiness and later success in life. Research on a number of adult health and medical conditions points to pre-disease pathways that have their beginnings in early and middle childhood.
Emotional regulation and attachment
More than any other developmental periods, early and middle childhood sets the stage for:
The ability to make good decisions about risky situations
Conflict negotiation and healthy relationships with family and friends
Understanding the Risks During Early and Middle Childhood
Although in early and middle childhood, children are typically healthy, it is during this time that children are at risk for conditions such as:
Developmental and behavioral disorders
Asthma and other chronic conditions
While typically nonfatal, these conditions affect children, their education, their relationships with others, and the health and well-being of the adolescents and adults they will become.
Emerging Impacts in Early and Middle Childhood
The keys to understanding early and middle childhood health are recognizing the important roles these periods play in adult health and well-being and focusing on conditions and illnesses that can seriously limit children’s abilities to learn, grow, play, and become healthy adults.
Center on the Developing Child, Lifelong Health. Harvard University.
National Scientific Council on The Developing Child; Connecting the Brain to the Rest of the Body: Early Childhood Development and Lifelong Health Are Deeply Intertwined. Working Paper 15. June 2020
Liew, J. Effortful control, executive functions, and education: Bringing self‐regulatory and social‐emotional competencies to the table. Child development perspectives. 2012;6(2), 105-111. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1750-8606.2011.00196.x/abstract
Brown TT, Jernigan TL. Brain development during the preschool years. Neuropsychol Rev. 2012;22(4), 313–333. doi:10.1007/s11065-012-9214-1
National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. Preventing Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People: Progress and Possibilities. Committee on the Prevention of Mental Disorders and Substance Abuse Among Children, Youth, and Young Adults: Research Advances and Promising Interventions. Mary Ellen O’Connell, Thomas Boat, and Kenneth E. Warner, Editors, 2009. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.