Dr Paul Williams: We must show leadership and join the Early Years Revolution
One of the best ways of creating a fairer society is to give the right support and care to children in the crucial first 1,000 days of their lives, writes Paul Williams
I want our country to be the most supportive and caring place in the world that a child could possibly be born into. Building that kind of society drives me – not just as a Member of Parliament, but also as a father and a practising GP.
Almost all research on the subject demonstrates that our path in life is set during the crucial first one thousand days from conception. Healthy social and emotional development during this time lays the foundation for lifelong good physical and mental health. Yet our current politics invests a fortune reacting to problems much later in life, leaving a gaping void where we should be warriors for a fairer and healthier society.
During the first 1,000 days of life, more than a million new brain connections are made every second. Babies’ brains are shaped by the way that they interact with others. But 8,300 babies under one in England currently live in households where domestic violence, alcohol or drug dependency and severe mental illness are all present. Those who experience adversity in childhood, are more likely to get heart disease, cancer and get mental health problems than those who don’t. They are thirty times more likely to attempt suicide.
Politics is failing these babies and other children born into families where low socio-economic status strongly affects the chance of achieving good health. All of the evidence points to investment at the start of life having the greatest impact in reducing inequalities, but we’re seeing cuts to health visiting, children’s centre closures and increasing child poverty. Children whose mothers were stressed in pregnancy were twice as likely to have mental health problems as teenagers, but politicians aren’t investing enough even to identify many perinatal mental health problems.
I firmly believe that we need to devote much more attention and resource to this crucial period of life than we currently do. That’s why I chaired the cross-party Health and Social Care Select Committee’s inquiry into the First 1,000 Days of Life. As politicians we have a moral responsibility to work collaboratively if we want our country to be one that’s happier and healthier. The Committee report has asked for 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.
We then want communities, the NHS and voluntary groups to be led by Local Authorities to develop plans to bring this strategy to life, inspiring improved support for children, parents and families in their areas. Funds should be boosted and then pooled to deliver shared, agreed actions.
Our report also calls for the Healthy Child Programme to be improved and given greater impetus. It should be expanded to focus on the whole family, begin before conception, deliver more continuity of care for families and extend health visitors engagement beyond age two and a half to ensure children are becoming school-ready.
One of the best ways of creating a fairer society is to give the right support and care to children as they enter the world. Every single policy should think about the effects on children and their families in these early days. Political parties who are serious about prevention and reducing health inequalities must now resolve to make and protect the massive investments that are needed to drive coordinated action right at the start of life. Politicians of all sides must now show inspiring leadership to join this Early Years Revolution and help children get the best possible start in life.