Changing Young Children's
Lives For Good

The Importance Of Caring For Young Children

The Latest Brain Research

During the last 15 years, scientists have discovered more about how the brain works than in the entire history of neuroscience. They used to think of babies as blank slates. But now they know that babies begin learning as soon as they leave the womb. At the time of birth, 100 billion or so neurons in the brain are already hard at work, keeping the heart beating and the breath flowing. Before long, more synapses begin forming to build the architecture of the child’s brain.

Brain Growth Especially Rapid in the First 2 Years of Life

Even young infants can learn. In 1973, researchers showed 5- to 12-week-old babies a silent color film. While watching it, the infants sucked on pacifiers connected to a pressure switch controlling the projector lens. If they sucked at just the right rate, the movie appeared in focus. The infants quickly learned to do so, demonstrating not only that they could learn, but that they preferred a clear to a blurry image. [1] Another study showed that infants sucked vigorously when introduced to the sound “ba,” but gradually lost interest and stopped. When hearing a new sound “pa,” vigorous sucking started again. [2]

At three or four months old, babies can prop things up and figure out how to tug on a rug to move a toy. By this age, babies seem to like listening to words better than to other sounds. [3] In another few months, memory starts working as the hippocampus develops. Now the infant can remember how to make a mobile spin or a toy squeak. From six to 12 months, the brain furiously develops synapses, laying the groundwork for forethought and logic. [4] During this critical stage, chronic hunger or repeated stress or frequent illness can leave a lasting impact. That happens because negative emotions can release a bath of toxic hormones over the brain. Repeated exposure can literally shrink the baby’s cortex and limbic system, making it forever difficult to manage emotions, form attachments or learn.[5] By age four, cortical development is largely finished. [6] Memory improves. Logical thinking and language skills develop. The ability to understand symbolic representation fuels enormous growth. As gross and fine motor skills increase, children begin to move confidently through space, manage finer and more complex tasks, and take care of more personal needs, such as dressing. [7]

Steps In A Child’s Development

Leaning begins.

3 Months
Eyes focus. Recognizes sounds. Moves with purpose.

4 Months
Moves objects. Prefers words to other sounds.

8 Months
Memory starts working. Responds to name. Holds objects with hands.

Up To 12 Months
Logic and thought begin. Moves on stomach or crawls. Moves objects in and out of container. Drinks from cup.

Research On The Importance Of Good Nutrition And Child Care

Between 1990 and 2006, the World Bank increased its funding of Early Childhood Development programs from $126 million to $1.6 billion a year. According to its World Development Report, “Early interventions can substantially enhance a child’s life chances and loosen the intergenerational grip of poverty and inequality.”[8]  Numerous studies have found that early childhood education programs with nutrition and cognitive stimulation typically improve children’s health, cognitive abilities, academic performance, and ability to stay in school.

Nutrition supplementation alone can make a significant difference. In Indonesia, 334 children under the age of 18 months on rural tea plantations received supplemental food. When the study ended, they had better working memories than infants who did not receive it. [9] In Guatemala, nutritional interventions for poor children from 6 to 24 months old increased their probability of attending school by 5.6 percentage points and led to higher test scores and school completion rates. Focused on children from 9 to 24 months old, an experiment in Jamaica documented lower levels of development in undersized infants compared to those of normal height. After receiving nutritional supplements and regular mental stimulation, the smaller children caught up developmentally in less than two years. [10]

Nutrition coupled with child care can lead to vast improvements. A study of 1,720 households in 15 Rio de Janeiro favelas found that free child care increased the income of poor women as much as 20 percent—and their children’s academic performance improved. [11] Gertler reported in an analysis of the PROGRESA child care program that after 24 months, the illness rate of participating children was 39.5% lower than for non-participating children, a statistically significant difference. [12] In Nepal, a recent study showed that more than 90% of the children who attended a non-formal preschool enrolled in primary school, compared to some 70% of those who had not. By second grade, 80% of the preschool participants were still enrolled compared to only 40% of the non-participants. [13]

World Bank cost-benefit analyses project returns of $2 to $5 for every $1 invested in early childhood development (ECD) in developing countries.



[1] Kalnins, I.V. & Bruner, J.S. (1973).  The coordination of visual observation and instrumental behavior in early infancy. Perception 2: 307-314.
[2] Eimas, P., Siqueland, E., Siqueland, P. & Vigorito, J. (1971). Speech perception in infants. Science, 171: 303-306.
[3] Mehler, J. & Christophe, A. (1995). Maturation and learning of language in the first year of life. Pp. 943-954 in Gazzaniga, M. (Ed.) The Cognitive Neurosciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
[4] Newsweek Special Issue. The Brain. 1998. pp. 28-37.
[5] Hotz, R.L. (October 29, 1998). Neglect harms infants’ brains, researchers say. Los Angeles Times. A19.
[6] Hart & Risley
[7] Prekindergarten Learning and Development Guidelines
[8] World Bank. (2005). Equity and development: world development report 2006. Washington, D.C.: World Bank. P. 133.
[9] Pollitt, E., Watkins, W. & Husaini, M. (1997). Three-month nutritional supplementation in Indonesian infants and toddlers benefits memory function eight years later. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 66(6):1357-1363.
[10] Grantham-McGregor S., Powell, C., Walker, S.P., & Himes, J.H.  (1991). Nutritional supplementation, psychosocial stimulation and mental development of stunted children: The Jamaican study. The Lancet, 338. (8758):1-5.
[11] Deutsch, R. (1998). Does child care pay? Labor force participation and earnings effect of access to child care in the favelas of Rio. Washington, D.C.: Inter-American Development Bank, Office of the Chief Economist Working Paper Series 384. and  Attanasio, O.P. and Vera-Hernandez, A.M. (2004). Medium and long run effects of nutrition and child care: evaluation of a community nursery program in rural Colombia. London: Institute for Fiscal Studies Working Paper EWP04/06.
[12] Gertler, P. (2004, Sept.). Do conditional cash transfers improve child health? Evidence from PROGRESA’s control randomized experiment: a longitudinal analysis. Journal of Public Economics. 81: 345-368.
[13] Save the Children. (2003). What’s the Difference? An ECD Impact Study from Nepal. Kathmandu, Nepal.