A new paper, by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, has highlighted the critical period of child development from conception to the end of two years of age. This being the crucial period for child development that sets the scene for a lifetime of physical, mental and emotional health.
The evidence paper, compiled by researchers at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI), highlights the importance of a child’s first 1000 days of growth. The report, The First Thousand Days, has shown that children are affected in multiple ways, including through biology, their experiences, environment and diet, their parent’s health and lifestyle during pregnancy, and the broader community. The developing foetus uses ‘cues’ provided by the mother’s physical and mental state to ‘predict’ the kind of world they will be born into, and how to adapt to it accordingly.
Holistic health practitioners have advocated the importance of preconception care of the mother and father, the nutritional and mental wellbeing of the mother during pregnancy and the nutritional and environmental effects on the foetus and newborn infant for decades. By enlarge they have been scoffed at. So, I was surprised to see a paper published, that looked at the available evidence, showing that exposures during this vulnerable period can have long-term consequences for a child’s health and wellbeing.
It would appear that the study authors were also surprised at what they found. Dr Tim Moore, a senior research fellow at MCRI, says the newer evidence they looked at is both “astonishing and scary. The first thousand days is a period of maximum developmental plasticity, that means it’s the period during which as an organism we are most susceptible to change by environmental experiences, and those changes can have lifelong consequences.”
Some of the most “astonishing” evidence relates to role the human microbiome has on health during this time. The microbiome refers to the mix of good and bad microorganisms that live on and in the human body, particularly in the gut. Any change in the abundance, or composition or diversity of these micro-organisms can have significant health consequences.
Also in the report is the impact of trauma, such as domestic violence and chronic stress caused by poverty and other prolonged negative experiences, have on the developing foetus. Biologically, high levels of maternal stress can result in an increase in the mother’s cortisol production which can enter the baby’s brain via the placenta and the umbilical cord.
Research has also shown chronic stress impacts a person’s genetic makeup by shortening telomeres, the protective caps at the end of chromosomes. Telomere shortness and stress have independently been associated with several common conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
It is interesting to note that the report also included the following statement:
“enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have the same fundamental human rights as adults to a high standard of health and wellbeing. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, …., provides General Comments to guide governments in fulfilling their obligations under the Convention. These include General Comment No. 7 (2005), on implementing child rights in early childhood, and General Comment No. 13 (2013), on the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health.”
I have said for many years that children that have a diagnosis, like autism, should have the same quality of care that other children have. Unfortunately, parents concerned about their child’s health, are often dismissed by medical doctors, refusing to do any basic, let alone more comprehensive testing. Consequently, children suffer needlessly and have a poor quality of life. This report indicates that there is a ‘window’ of opportunity, where we can help to correct underlying issues in children. Although it is possible to do this after, it certainly becomes more difficult, a message we have been trying to get out to the autism community for years.
Infants are born ‘prepolluted’
Another interesting comment in the report is that subsequent generations of children are born ‘prepolluted’.
“Because of the omnipresence of chemicals in our daily life, pregnant women have continuous contact with chemicals in food, water, air, and consumer products. Despite the fact that the foetus is carried inside the mother’s womb, the mother’s chemical body burden is shared with her foetus; many substances easily cross the placenta and the foetal blood-brain barrier to reach the developing brain. As a result of these preconception and pre-birth exposures, the next generations are born “‘prepolluted’”. Evidence of these exposures comes from analyses of the umbilical cords of newborn babies showing they contain an average of two hundred industrial chemicals.”
The evidence is clear that children exposed in the womb or after birth to toxic environmental chemicals, can have detrimental effects on their health. Research being published is showing the extent of the damage being done – however little if anything is being done about it. The following research study is just an example of the alarming research that is currently being published, yet not reported widely:
Prenatal and Postnatal PCB-153 and p,p’-DDE Exposures and Behavior Scores at 5-9 Years of Age among Children in Greenland and Ukraine.
In summary, the key messages from the The First Thousand Days – Summary Report, are listed below. The summary report is readable at 36 pages, for those wanting more detail, the full report is 99 pages.
- During the first 1000 days, the developing foetus and infant are at their most adaptable, but also their most vulnerable. Starting from conception, the foetus is actively responding to changes in the environment, using cues provided by the mother’s physical and mental state to ‘predict’ the kind of world they will be born into and altering their bodily structures accordingly. This powerful capacity is a double-edged sword; adapting to adverse experiences may help in the short term, but have negative implications in the long-term.
- The mind, brain and body function as an integrated system, and what happens in one bodily system affects all others to some extent.
- The range of factors now known to affect biological and developmental functioning during the first 1000 days is considerable. Some predate conception, including genetic and epigenetic transmissions from parents and grandparents; others occur during pregnancy, including maternal stress and nutrition; and still others occur during infancy, including neglect or abuse.
- Changes or adaptations made during the first 1000 days can have lifelong effects. Adult conditions such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer are now being linked to pathways that originated prior to or during the first 1000 days.
- Our physical and social ecology has dramatically altered over the past 60 or so years. This has changed the conditions under which families are conceiving and raising children, and has had a direct effect on their capacity to care for their children. This is because parental and family functioning – and therefore, children’s development – are ecologically shaped.
- While much of the economic, technological and health developments have been beneficial, they have had unintended consequences that we are now beginning to recognise. These range from alterations to the composition of our microbiomes, which play an important role in maintaining health and wellbeing, to the growth of social inequities.
- Modern living conditions fail to provide the kinds of normal stressors that our bodies need to develop in a healthy way. As a result, we are subject to a wide range of ‘mismatch’ physical and mental health conditions, many with origins in the first 1000 days. These include allergies and obesity.
- Transgenerational transmission of risk factors can mean that some children inherit non-genomic changes that place them at greater risk of disease and other developmental problems.
- New knowledge is emerging about the underlying mechanisms by which experiences shape biological and neurological development; including changes at the cellular level (telomeres), biological level (epigenetic processes), neurological level (synaptic growth and pruning), and the microbiome level. However, as yet, we do not know how to intervene directly with these mechanisms.
- A key question concerns how permanent or otherwise these biological and neurological changes are. While we do not yet have the full story, we are starting to understand that some changes are partly or largely reversible through changes in the environments, while others may leave lasting effects. Some changes also have ‘sleeper’ effects, where they may only be detectable many decades after the precipitating experience.
- Some severe disturbances (such as schizophrenia) require a double or triple ‘hit’ of experiences or exposures before they are triggered.
- Children exposed to adverse environments and experiences early are likely to continue to be exposed to such experiences, which has a cumulative effect. In this way, a poor start to life in the first 1000 days may be the start of a cascade of events that reinforce earlier neurological and biological adaptations.
- What is undisputed is that reversing early adverse adaptations or inheritances gets progressively harder after the first 1000 days. While it is never too late to make changes, the first and best opportunity we have to build strong foundations for optimal development is during the first 1000 days.