Published On: Wed, Apr 16th, 2014

Brain development in children: the impact of adversity

Eighty percent of our brain is developed in the first five years of life – and the pace and complexity of this development is never ever repeated again.

We have one chance to get it right. Yet there is so much that can threaten this process – all around the world young children are growing up in contexts of poverty, conflict, and food insecurity.

In spite of the advances in knowledge about how our brains develop and work, we know little about the combined impact of such risk factors on brain development in children. For example, what happens to the brain in the face of neglect, lack of nutrition and emotional stress? Does it matter when these risks are faced by the child – is it worse at 5 days, 5 months or 5 years?

A few months after Typhoon Haiyan, a  young child sleeps in a parent/baby-friendly tent, in the city of Tacloban.

A few months after Typhoon Haiyan, a young child sleeps in a parent/baby-friendly tent, in the city of Tacloban. Numerous risk factors – such as poor nutrition and exposure to violence – can impact on a child’s brain development during the early years of life. © UNICEF/NYHQ2014-0249/Pirozzi

Brain development in children – the facts

  • In the 1st years of life the brain grows at the pace of 700 new neural connections per second, a pace which is never achieved again.
  • By 3 years of age, a child brain is twice as active as an adult brain.
  • It is early life experiences that determine the capacity of the brain.

What we know is that early stimulation, caregiving, attachment, bonding and creating safe contexts for children all have a positive influence on their brains and can help children grow, learn and thrive.

Given the super specialisation in the research world, the various risks to brain development are often investigated independently, leaving us unable to answer many important questions; for example does early stimulation offset the negative impact of nutritional deprivation?

Given that the first 5 years of life is when the foundation of the brain’s architecture is put in place, and that experience during this time is one of the strongest influences on this development, we need to understand better how these different influences interact to affect brain development and function.

To do this, UNICEF, will be convening meetings and consultations with neuroscientists in an attempt to bring together these different bodies of evidence. This will help us to understand the crucial interlinkages, which is in turn of great importance for UNICEF’s early childhood programming, and ultimately – the health and wellbeing of children around the world. I look forward to sharing more updates on this exciting area of work in the near future.

Pia Britto is the Senior Adviser on Early Childhood Development in UNICEF’s headquarters.

On Wednesday 16 April UNICEF will host a meeting on ‘Understanding the Multiple Influences on Brain Development’ at UNICEF’s headquarters in New York. The meeting is not open to the public but will be covered on

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