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Precious foundations: The first 5 years of a child's life

Our Chief Executive, Professor Peter Fonagy, has written this blog in response to The Royal Foundation's new findings of the biggest ever UK study on the early years of childhood.

The science is uncontestable: the first five years of childhood are more pivotal for development and future health and happiness, than any other single moment in our lifetime. This first sentence from The Royal Foundation’s new report on early years is a stark recognition that if we are to give all children and young people a fair and equal start to life we must, as a matter of urgency, support them in their early years.

But science on its own isn’t enough. We need to look to how we create an environment around each child, and in our communities, which provides the fairness and equality that secures their future happiness. The first five years lay down the precious foundations of skills, knowledge and confidence that help us navigate future challenges and realise our potential. These skills need to be available to all children.

I was privileged to sit on the steering group for this report, and I applaud the commitment of HRH The Duchess of Cambridge to bring this issue to public attention. We need to have a broader discussion about children’s early years. If less than one in three parents recognise that the first five years are the most important in a child’s life, then we need to remind them how important they are. Indeed, we all need to keep reminding ourselves of how important they are.

We need to reach out to parents and carers, whatever their circumstances. The Royal Foundation report highlights the levels of stress that parents feel, and how that can be passed on to their children. This can impact on children’s development and even their academic achievement. The report highlights how the worst-off parents often have the least access to the support that we all need to bring up a child. Worryingly, it tells us that 70% of parents of children under 5 feel they are judged by others. The impact of this on parents can be deeply hurtful, affect their sense of who they are, and their confidence to bring up their children.

What is so helpful about this report is that it lays bare the myth that parents should be expected to bring up children on their own. Bringing up children is something that we can only do with the support of our friends, our relatives, and ideally our own parents. Schools, nurseries and health workers are also part of the support structures that parents need. We need to remind parents of their importance and the extraordinary work they do in bringing up a child. When they struggle, rather than judging them, we must offer support and help.

I hope this report will encourage a greater understanding of the science of the early years. I hope it will cultivate sustainable support for parents and carers, and encourage them to seek and find help when they need it. And most importantly of all, let’s see it herald the start of a kinder society – one in which we understand that, only by valuing and supporting all parents, can we give all children a fair and equal chance to achieve happiness.

You can read The Royal Foundation's executive summary here and the full report here.

We urge early years practitioners to join Early Years in Mind, a free online network that provides guidance on supporting the mental health of babies, young children and their families.