UNICEF urges Governments to invest in early childhood

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A new report calls for Governments worldwide to prioritise early childhood development.

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The UNICEF report highlights the importance of policies that support children's early brain development

According to the charity UNICEF, which has published the report, around 85 million children under five live in 32 countries that do not offer what it calls the three ‘critical policies’ to support children’s early brain development: two years of free pre-primary education, paid breastfeeding breaks for new mothers for the first six months, and adequate paid parental leave

Among these 32 countries that do not offer families  these policies are the United States and Bangladesh, where 40 per cent of the 85 million children live.

The charity also wants family-friendly policies, including these three key policies made a national policy, and for Governments and the private sector to give working parents the time and resources needed to support their young children’s brain development.

UNICEF says that these policies help parents better protect their children and provide them with better nutrition, play and early learning experiences in the ‘crucial first years of life’, when the brain grows at a rate never to be repeated.

The report, ‘Early Moments Matter for Every Child’, finds that just 15 countries worldwide guarantee all three policies, including Cuba, France, Portugal, Russia and Sweden.

A such it calls upon Governments and the private sector to prioritise early childhood development, including investing in and expanding services in homes, schools, communities and health clicnics – prioritising the most vulnerable children.

According to UNICEF, on average, Governments worldwide spend less than 2 per cent of their education budgets on early childhood programmes despite investment in children’s early years yielding significant economic gains in the future. It says that every US$1 invested in programmes that support breastfeeding generates US$35 in return; and every US$1 invested in early childhood care and education for the most disadvantaged children can yield a return of up to US$17.

The report follows a campaign launched by UNICEF at the beginning of the year #EarlyMomentsMatter, aimed at raising awareness about the critical impact that early experiences have on children’s brain development during their first 1,000 days of life.

UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake said, ‘What’s the most important thing children have? It’s their brains. But we are not caring for children’s brains the way we care for their bodies – especially in early childhood, when the science shows that children’s brains and children’s futures are rapidly being shaped. We need to do more to give parents and caregivers of young children the support they need during this most critical period of brain development.

‘If we don’t invest now in the most vulnerable children and families, we will continue to perpetuate intergenerational cycles of disadvantage and inequality. Life by life, missed opportunity by missed opportunity, we are increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots and undermining our long-term strength and stability.

‘Policies that support early childhood development are a critical investment in the brains of our children, and thus in the citizens and workforce of tomorrow – and literally the future of the world.’

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