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Facts for Life

Child Development and Early Learning

Supporting Information


The early years, especially the first three years of life, are very important for building the baby's brain. Everything she or he sees, touches, tastes, smells or hears helps to shape the brain for thinking, feeling, moving and learning.

Why it is important - All key messages - How children develop (chart) - Resources

A child's brain develops rapidly during the first five years of life, especially the first three years. It is a time of rapid cognitive, linguistic, social, emotional and motor development. For example, a child learns many words starting at around 15–18 months. Rapid language learning continues into the preschool years.

The child's brain grows as she or he sees, feels, tastes, smells and hears. Each time the child uses one of the senses, a neural connection is made in the child's brain. New experiences repeated many times help make new connections, which shape the way the child thinks, feels, behaves and learns now and in the future.

A close relationship between the child and the caregiver is the best way to nourish the child's growing brain. When a caregiver plays with and sings, speaks, reads or tells a story to the child and nurtures her or him with healthy food, love and affection, the child's brain grows. Being healthy, interacting with caregivers and living in a safe and clean environment can make a big difference in a child's growth, development and future potential.

Babies need lots of care and affection in the early years. Holding, cuddling and talking to the child stimulate brain growth and promote emotional development. Being kept close to the mother and breastfed on demand provide the infant with a sense of emotional security. The baby suckles for both nutrition and comfort.

For young children, crying is a way of communicating. Responding to the child's cry by holding and/or talking soothingly to her or him will help establish a sense of trust and security.

This kind of early bonding and attachment to the mother, father or other close caregiver helps a child develop a broad range of abilities to use and build upon throughout life. These include the ability to:

  • learn
  • be self-confident and have high self-esteem
  • have positive social skills
  • have successful relationships at later ages
  • develop a sense of empathy.

As children's brains develop, so do their emotions, which are real and powerful. Children may become frustrated if they are unable to do something or have something they want. They are often frightened of strangers, new situations or the dark. Children whose reactions are laughed at, punished or ignored may grow up shy and unable to express emotions normally. If caregivers are patient and sympathetic when a child expresses strong emotions, the child is more likely to grow up happy, secure and well balanced.

Boys and girls have the same physical, mental, emotional and social needs. Both have the same capacity for learning. Both have the same need for affection, attention and approval.

Young children can experience excessive stress if they are physically or emotionally punished, are exposed to violence, are neglected or abused, or live in families with mental illness, such as depression or substance abuse. These stresses interfere with the developing brain and can lead to cognitive, social and emotional delays and behaviour problems in childhood and later in life.

Children who are physically or mentally punished in anger are more likely to become violent themselves. More positive and effective ways to address children's behaviour can include:

  • providing a child with clear explanations about what to do and what not to do
  • responding consistently to certain behaviours
  • praising good behaviour.

These responses by parents and other caregivers encourage children so they become well-adjusted and productive members of the family and community.

Both parents, as well as other family members, need to be involved in caring and nurturing the growth, learning and development of children. They should make both girls and boys feel equally valued as they encourage them to learn and explore – this is important preparation for school.

Mothers around the world generally take on the primary role of addressing their children's rights and needs. They love, feed, console, teach, play with and care for their children.

A father's role is as vital as the mother's in nurturing and caring for their children and protecting their rights. A father should make daughters and sons feel they are equally important. Just like the mother, the father can help meet their child's needs for love, affection, approval, encouragement and stimulation. Together, the mother and father can ensure that the child receives a quality education and good nutrition and health care.

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