Early childhood experiences play a crucial role in shaping an individual's lifelong health and learning. Positive experiences in early childhood such as having a secure attachment with a caretaker, opportunities for play and exploration, a positive socio-economic environment, and access to nutritious food support better physical and mental health outcomes. These in turn help foster greater potential for the child's learning and development. On the contrary, negative experiences such as neglect or abuse, exposure to violence, conflict and chronic stress, and poverty can have lasting negative effects on health, learning, and social-emotional development.
Rapid advancements and improvised research in biological sciences show that a solid foundation for good health is established in early life, particularly during prenatal and early childhood. This period can greatly impact short- and long-term outcomes. For instance, childhood obesity often carries into adulthood and is hard to treat, highlighting the need for early prevention. Statistics indicate that early interventions for young children (0-6 years) could lead to significant improvement in overall well-being and ultimately save associated health costs.1
Understanding the link between the brain and the rest of the body is crucial in addressing underlying factors and mitigating their long-term impact on a child's health and well-being.
The stress response in the body is a coordinated effort of multiple systems:
- The autonomic nervous system increases heart rate and breathing to pump more oxygen to the brain and muscles, triggering the "fight or flight" response.
- The immune system is activated to prevent injury and infection.
- Metabolic systems increase energy production for the body's cells, tissues, and organs.
- The neuroendocrine system balances hormones that regulate the body's adaptation to external stimuli.
The brain receives input from each system, which affects its functioning and can even change its chemistry and structure, and in turn sends signals to other organs. For instance, exercise benefits cardiovascular health and boosts the process of creating new neural connections and increasing blood flow in the brain, improving memory and mood.
Intense stress and difficulties during early childhood can result in changes to the body's stress response system and lead to ongoing activation of the physiological stress response, resulting in chronic inflammation and oxidative stress (that is the imbalance between oxygen containing molecules and antioxidants in the body). This increases the likelihood of adult onset of chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and mental health disorders. Simply put, it can be likened to how our body restores its normal body temperature. Our normal body temperature is programmed to remain at around 98 degrees Fahrenheit, and too much variation on either side triggers multiple physiological responses to restore a normal range, for example, sweating decreases body temperature and shivering increases it.
Restoring the Balance
A growing body of evidence2 indicates that most health outcomes can be improved by adopting healthy practices and altering environmental impact, where possible. This will help counteract the negative effects by making sustainable choices, especially from an early age.
1. Maintain a stable environment and nurture positive relationships.
A child raised in a stable environment with positive relationships and a regular routine is more likely to have a healthy biological system, including healthy brain circuits, leading to favorable growth and good health throughout their life. However, a child who feels insecure due to the absence of responsive adults, parental conflict/violience, may adopt physiological and coping mechanisms adapted to their stressful circumstances, hindering their physical and mental health, self-control, and learning ability in the long run.
2. Encourage active play.
As physical play plays a significant role in physical development, igniting curiosity, and building social and emotional skills, it is essential to prioritize and protect play as a critical aspect of children's daily lives, both inside and outside of school. Sadly, indoor video gaming is replacing outdoor physical play in modern society. Additionally, excessive television viewing and other forms of media consumption are replacing active play and have been observed to interrupt even the play of young infants. Active play should be encouraged as part of a well-rounded and healthy lifestyle, not just for maintaining body weight.
3. Ensure adequate sleep.
Sleep is not a waste of time; its benefits go far beyond simply restoring and maintaining physical structure and function. It is crucial to remember that a good night's sleep is the normal biological state, and there is no argument that lack of sleep is healthy. Hence, promoting a good night's sleep as part of overall health measures is a practical and low-risk approach.
Lack of adequate sleep is a prevalent yet under-acknowledged public health issue that accumulates negative impacts on both physical and mental health. Short sleep duration is linked to emotional distress, depression, anxiety, weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, early death, and unhealthy behaviors such as inactivity and poor eating habits. The evidence for shorter sleep cycles, being a factor in obesity, is growing.
4. Promote the consumption of a variety of nutritious food.
A significant challenge today is the "obesogenic environment" that promotes energy consumption and discourages energy expenditure. People today lead sedentary lives with a high dependency on technology and chronic stress in a society of food abundance, where fast food is more affordable than healthier options. Encouraging intake of a well-balanced diet, right from the beginning through modeling, can help set the tone and taste buds right.
5. Encourage and support breastfeeding during infancy.
Fostering a positive attitude towards breastfeeding within the community and providing education and support on the importance of exclusive breastfeeding (for the first 6 months atleast), can help bring about greater health benefits for generations to come. For some mothers, finding support can be particularly challenging. There is some useful information and resources for all breastfeeding families in a recently published Muslim Home parenting newsletter called Providing Support for Breastfeeding | Muslim Home
6. Ensure access to healthcare.
Access to good healthcare is vital to raising healthy citizens now and into the future. As they say, “Prevention is better than a cure.” Through a proper routine of assessments by general physicians and dental care providers, adverse impacts on lifelong health and learning can be significantly avoided. For this purpose, governmental institutions, healthcare providers, schools, and social support groups can and must work together to raise awareness and serve the needs of the local communities.
Remediation can occur at any age, but earlier interventions produce better and more easily attainable results. It is more advantageous, and cost-effective, to promote healthy practices from the start rather than attempting to repair the impact of negligence later. Altering certain socio-economic factors is not always an option for some families, but through advocacy for social care support, communities at large can play a crucial role in ensuring that people can gain equal access to the much needed support that they deserve. And parents can find the support they need to make sound choices for their children that bring about a healthy lifestyle and outcome for generations to come.
Umm Ahmed is an early childhood educator and mother of three boys. Always on the quest to learn, she is passionate about seeking knowledge and passing it on to others. A writer in the making, she draws inspiration through deep conversations, laws of nature, and her own children. She and her family are currently living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.