Deep Dives

Lifelong Health

Health in the earliest years — beginning with the future mother’s well-being before she becomes pregnant — strengthens developing biological systems that enable children to thrive and grow up to be healthy adults. Positive early experiences provide children with a foundation for building sturdy brain architecture, which supports a broad range of skills and learning capacities throughout the lifespan.

Why Does Early Health Matter?

The biology of health explains how experiences and environmental influences “get under the skin” and interact with genetic predispositions.

“Early experience literally is 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, creating biological “memories” that shape development, for better or for worse.
  • 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 adaptive 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.
A framework for reconceptualizing early childhood policies and programs to strengthen lifelong health. Click to enlarge.

Caregiver and Community Capacities that Promote Health

Ensuring that children have a healthy start to life requires the support of family members, early childhood program staff, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and parent workplaces. The caregiver and community capacities that enable adults to strengthen the foundations of child health can be grouped into three categories:

  • Time and commitment. This includes the nature and quality of time caregivers spend with children and how communities assign and accept responsibility for monitoring child health. It also includes how communities pass and enforce legislation and regulations that affect child well-being.
  • Financial, psychological, and institutional resources. These include caregivers’ ability to purchase goods and services, their physical and mental health, and their child-rearing skills. Also important are the availability of community services and organizations that promote children’s healthy development, as well as supportive structures such as parks, child care facilities, schools, and afterschool programs.
  • Skills and knowledge. Caregivers’ education, training, interactions with child-related professionals, and personal experiences affect their capacity to support children. Similarly, the political and organizational capabilities of communities affect their ability to build systems that work for children and families.

Policies and Programs that Improve Health Outcomes

Nearly any policy or program that touches the lives of children and families is an opportunity to improve lifelong health outcomes. 

“People like to say that children’s health is our nation’s wealth, but until we really start to act on these ideas…we will not get to being a healthier population and a more prosperous society.”

Within both the public and private sectors, policies and programs can benefit children by enhancing the capacities of their caregivers as well as the communities in which they develop. Relevant policies include legislative and administrative actions that affect public health, child care and early education, child welfare, early intervention, family economic stability, community development, housing, environmental protection, and primary health care. The private sector can also play an important role in strengthening the capacities of families to raise healthy and competent children, particularly through supportive workplace policies.

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