They start young: Early child development and its outcomes

Focusing on a child’s development during the first 6 years of life improves their health, social skills, educational achievement, and even their earnings in adulthood. Find out what early childhood development (ECD) means and what you can do for your child during this critical stage.  

What happens to children during their first years?

The first six years of a child’s life, often termed “early childhood”, are the most important development stage in life. It is during this time that the building blocks of the brain begin to form, and the developing brain is very responsive to the physical, social, and emotional environment. Some of the new and important skills that children learn during these years include:

  • Physical skills: learning to reach and grab for an object, and to stand and walk alone
  • Social skills: learning to communicate their  needs and use words to talk to other people
  • Cognitive skills: learning to think, solve problems,  compare sizes and shapes, and  recognize people and objects
  • Emotional skills: learning to calm oneself when upset, being patient when learning a new skill, being happy as well as make others happy

What is Early Childhood Development?

Early Childhood Development (ECD) refers to a child’s growth and development from the moment of conception in the mother’s womb, throughout pregnancy and their first years as babies till they enter school. ECD focuses on 3 main aspects during this period:

  1. Health: includes focusing on the mother’s health during pregnancy, reducing infant mortality, and increasing immunization of babies and children.  
  2. Nutrition: includes making sure children’s diets include enough calories and proteins (macro-nutrients) along with essential minerals such as iron, Vitamin A, and iodine (micronutrients). One consequence of improper nutrition is stunting, where children are too short for their age.
  3. Education: includes growing up in a loving and caring environment with opportunities for developmental activities and attending pre-school.

Prioritizing ECD Gives Children a Better Future  

Studies have shown that what happens to children in their very first years – physically, psychologically and emotionally – shapes their lives.

Several ECD programs can be implemented to improve the growth and development in babies and children. These programs include focusing on a mother’s health during and after pregnancy, encouraging breastfeeding and improving a baby’s nutrition, monitoring baby’s growth and immunization, and improving the parenting skills of caregivers and parents.

Children with better ECD live healthier lives, stay in school longer, and even earn more.Many studies have been conducted to measure the impact of ECD programs on individuals. Some of the evidence supporting ECD include:

  • Breastfeeding improves a baby’s chances for survival and protects them against diseases such as diarrhea and infections. Breastfeeding is also associated with higher intelligence scores
  • Malnutrition can lead to stunting, delayed cognitive development, and low academic achievement throughout the school years. Children who do not receive enough iodine also have poorer brain development and lower IQ levels
  • Children who attend preschool have better scores in literacy, vocabulary, math, and quantitative reasoning.
  • Preschool is associated with improved school performance in second and third grades. Children who attend preschool also do better at reading by age 15 than those who don’t
  • Children who were enrolled in ECD programs were also more likely to stay in school until age 18
  • ECD is also important in developing confident self-directed learners with personality traits needed to succeed later in life.
  • Receiving ECD helped improve adult future earnings by 25%


1 World Bank. 2015. Expanding Opportunities for the Next Generation: Early Childhood Development in the Middle East and North Africa. 

2 World Bank. 2014. Stepping Up Early Childhood Development: Investing in Young Children for High Returns. 

3 UNICEF & WHO. 2012. Care for Child Development: Participant Manual.

4 Brookings Institute. 2013. Early Childhood Development: The promise, the problem and the path forward. 

5 World Bank. 2011. Investing in Young Children : An Early Childhood Development Guide for Policy Dialogue and Project Preparation.

6 OECD. 2011. Investing in high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC).