First 1000 days of life is a critical phase
The first 1000 days of life, from conception to age 2, is a critical phase during which the foundations of a child's development are laid, with more than a million new brain connections made every second. If a child's body and brain develop well then their chances of a healthy life are improved. Exposure to adversity during this period can have lifelong consequences. A study in The Lancet in 2017 found that people who experienced at least four adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) were more likely to get heart disease, cancer and many mental health problems than those with no experience of ACEs. They were also thirty times more likely to have attempted suicide.
Long-term, cross-Government strategy
The Committee is asking the Government to produce a long-term, cross-Government strategy for the first 1000 days of life, setting demanding goals to reduce adverse childhood experiences, improve school readiness and reduce infant mortality and child poverty. This should be led by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, with the support of a small centralised delivery team.
The Committee then wants all local authorities to develop plans - with the local NHS, communities and the voluntary sector - to implement this strategy, bringing improved support for children, parents and families in their area. Funds should be pooled to deliver shared, agreed actions.
Government's Healthy Child Programme should be revised
The report also calls for the Government's Healthy Child Programme to be revised, improved and given greater impetus. The Committee recommends that the programme should be expanded to focus on the health of the whole family, begin before conception, deliver a greater continuity of care for children, parents and families during this period and extend visits beyond age 2½ years. Under the current programme, all families are entitled to 5 visits from health visiting services up to age 2½ years. The Committee recommends that an extra visit should be introduced at age 3-3½ years to check children are on course to achieve the level of development deemed necessary to start school.
Some children, parents and families need extra, more intensive, support if their child's development is off track. The Committee recommend the Government should develop a programme which children and parents in need of targeted support can access, building on the Flying Start programme in Wales and the Family Nurse Partnership in Scotland, Northern Ireland and parts of England.
The Government must use the Comprehensive Spending Review in 2019 to shift public expenditure towards intervening earlier rather than later and thereby secure long-term investment in prevention and early intervention to support parents, children and families.
Giving every child the best start in life
Dr Paul Williams MP (practising GP and father), who led the Committee for this inquiry, says, "Quite simply, I want this country to be the most supportive and caring place in the world that a child could be born into."
Dr Williams MP also says "There is a crisis in children's mental health in this country. But all we are seeing are cuts to health visiting, children's centre closures and increasing child poverty. Government must now show inspiring leadership to help children get the best possible start in life. If our country is serious about prevention and reducing health inequalities then we must make massive investments and drive coordinated action right at the start of life."