ABUJA – A global UNICEF report, launched in Abuja this morning, shows that Nigeria is putting its children at risk of under-development, both physically and mentally, because critical national policies are not providing an adequate foundation for their growth. During the first years of a child’s life, the brain grows rapidly; providing good nutrition, loving care and appropriate play provide solid foundations for a child’s learning – and eventual contribution to economic and social growth.
The UNICEF report, Early Moments Matter for Every Child, outlines three policies that can give parents the time and resources needed to support their young children’s healthy development.
The recommended policies are: two years of free pre-primary education; six months of paid maternity leave; and four weeks of paid paternity leave. Nigeria currently has just three months of paid maternity leave, only one year of free pre-primary education and no paternity leave at all. Only about one in every 10 pre-primary children are enrolled in early education activities.
According to the medical journal, The Lancet, Nigeria ranks among the ten countries with the largest number of children at risk of poor development.
A 2016 national survey indicated that 31% of children under the age of five are moderately or severely underweight in Nigeria. Stunting as a result of malnutrition can cause irreversible physical and mental retardation. Even though exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life has clearly been shown to improve physical and mental development, the same survey revealed that only 24% of Nigerian children are exclusively breastfed for six months. Paid maternity leave will help to increase the number of children exclusively breastfed.
“What we call Early Childhood Development, which includes physical and cognitive support, has a strategic place in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Mohamed Fall UNICEF Representative in Nigeria. “Investing in Early Childhood Development including services to support caregivers, quality pre-primary education and good nutrition will help to secure healthy and productive future generations in Nigeria,” he added.
As well as supporting exclusive breastfeeding, having good Early Childhood Development policies in place will help to improve the overall health and nutrition of a child, enable parents and caregivers to be more responsive to children’s needs and provide greater safety and security. It will also provide improved early learning.
With 90% of a child’s brain development occurring before the age of five, early childhood experiences can have a profound impact on a child’s development can ultimately impact a country’s growth.