This paper takes a comprehensive look at the latest evidence regarding the significance of the first 1000 days, and the biological, global, environmental and social factors that influence children’s outcomes during this critical period of development (and beyond). The paper revealed that there are multiple influences on children’s development, starting from pre-conception, and at the level of the individual child, the family, the community, and broader society. One of the key discoveries was how the foetus uses ‘cues’ provided by their mother’s physical and mental states to ‘predict’ the kind of world they will be born into, and adapts accordingly.  

This evidence paper is part of the Strong Foundations: Getting it Right in the First 1000 Days Initiative; a collaboration between the Centre for Community Child Health at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, the Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth, Bupa Australia, the Bupa Health Foundation, and PwC Australia.

Key findings:

  • The age, health and wellbeing of both mother and father prior to the child’s conception affect the integrity of the embryo right from the very beginning.
  • The foetus uses cues provided by their mother’s physical and mental states to ‘predict’ the kind of world they will be born into, and adapts accordingly. This adaptation can be either beneficial or detrimental, depending on the child’s relationships and environments.
  • The human brain and our bodily systems – including the immune, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular systems – operate as an integrated system, not as separate systems. This means that what happens in the first thousand days affects the whole body, with potentially profound consequences over the life course.
  • Disadvantage can be passed down through the generations at a cellular level. Our biology changes in response to stress, poverty and other prolonged adverse experiences, and these changes can be passed on to children from their parents and grandparents.
  • When children do not feel safe, calm or protected, the child’s brain places an emphasis on developing neuronal pathways that are associated with survival, before those that are essential to future learning and growth.
  • In addition to loving caregivers, children need safe communities, secure housing, access to green parklands, environments free from toxins, and access to affordable, nutritious foods. Many of these needs are beyond the control of individual families. This means that children can only develop as well as their families and their community and our broader society enable them to.
  • Not all changes that occur within the first thousand days are permanent. But as children grow, their ability to alter and change to make up for negative experiences and environments in the first thousand days becomes more difficult.
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