Study: Early interventions urgently needed to improve development for 250 million children

43 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries at risk of not reaching development potential

Children in Malawi line up for school

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC— More than two in five children in low- and middle-income countries (an estimated 43 percent, or 250 million) are at risk of not reaching their development potential due to extreme poverty and chronic undernutrition, according to Advancing Early Childhood Development: from Science to Scale, a new Series on early childhood development published today in The Lancet.

Maureen Black, PhD, distinguished fellow at RTI International, is lead author of the first paper in the series and a member of the steering committee.

“The first years of life set children on trajectories that are often hard to change,” Black said. “With millions of children in low- and middle-income countries falling behind important development milestones, often before age three, cross-sectoral interventions are urgently needed to ensure that young children are on a path to success in early childhood and throughout life.”

While global interest in early childhood development has increased, interventions are often fragmented. The Series argues that the diverse range of factors that influence childhood development requires that early childhood programs be comprehensive and of high quality, incorporating health, nutrition, security and safety, responsive caregiving and early learning.  Childhood development progresses in order—for instance, threats experienced prenatally and early in childhood can have lifelong effects.  Likewise, early exposure to nurturing can mitigate early threats and result in lifelong benefits, such as improved health and wage earning.

The lack of attention to nurturing care was highlighted as particularly concerning. According to Early childhood development coming of age: science though the life course, for which Black was the lead author, “nurturing care is characterized by a home environment that is sensitive to children’s health and nutritional needs, responsive, emotionally supportive, and developmentally stimulating and appropriate, with opportunities for play and exploration and protection from adversities.” The paper finds that although interventions focused on health, nutrition and social protection provide benefits, those that include nurturing care are more likely to provide lasting benefits.

“Nurturing care is the essential foundation of successful early childhood development, and must therefore be the bedrock of interventions,” Black said.

Other findings include:

  • Despite substantial progress in early childhood development research, programs, and national policies since 2000, services are of varying quality with uncoordinated and inequitable access, especially for children younger than 3 years.
  • Coordination, monitoring, and evaluation are needed across sectors to ensure that high quality early childhood development services are available throughout early childhood and primary school, up to the age of 8.
  • Action at global, national, and local levels is needed to increase political commitment to and investment in early childhood development.

Advancing Early Childhood Development builds on the findings of two previous landmark studies by The Lancet. The series is available here.

Join us for a panel discussion and reception celebrating the Lancet Series

On Thursday, October 6, RTI will host an event titled “The First 1,000 Days and Beyond: Integrated Approaches to Early Childhood Development.” Dr. Black will join other experts from RTI, USAID, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation to discuss how to break down silos in early childhood education, health and nutrition to build an integrated approach to early childhood interventions. For more information or to register, please click here.

About RTI’s work in early childhood development

Drawing on expertise across the education, nutrition and health sectors, RTI designs and implements integrated interventions to improve early childhood development outcomes throughout a child’s life cycle. To read more about RTI’s work in early childhood development in low- and middle-income countries, please visit RTI's international education page or contact Katherine Merseth, team leader, early childhood development.