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Children still grow up separated from their families in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
International Children’s Day: Early Moments Matter In conversation with Sascha Graumann, UNICEF Representative in Uzbekistan
Mr. Graumann, what is your perspective on Early Childhood Development? Why is it so important?
There is a key window in a child’s life when the conditions it encountershave the most potential to affect its life-long development. The period from conception to when a child turns two, sometimes called the first 1000 days, is a time of astonishing growth, and a child’s early experiences lay down the pattern for the rest of its life. Investments made in this period are very effective because children respond so readily to their surroundings.
Global evidence shows that children’s healthy development depends on key areas of care – among them nutrition, the parents’ response and care, and early learning.
However, around the world, about 250 million children – that’s 43 percent – of all children under the age of five in low and middle-income countries are at higher risk of not reaching their full potential due to poverty, and disadvantage, which threaten the ability of parents to provide for them in those critical areas.
UNICEF is working with the Government of Uzbekistan to empower families and communities to make sure every child gets the best start in life.
So what are priorities for action?
First of all, nutrition. Infants and young children need the right foods at the right time to grow and develop to their full potential.
If possible, a baby’s first food should be breast milk. Actually, breast milk is much more than food. It’s been estimated that improving breastfeeding rates around the world could save the lives of more than 820,000 children under age 5 every year. It supports healthy brain development and protects against obesity and other chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease in later life.
While breast feeding is incredibly important, it is often hard work, and sometimes mothers need help to get breastfeeding off to a good start. In Uzbekistan doctors and nurses have received training through joint UNICEF/Ministry of Health programmes so they can help mothers to initiate breastfeeding at birth, and techniques to help them continue breastfeeding when they return to the community after hospital.
According to the World Health Organisation, breastfeeding should continue until 2 years and beyond, so that young children get optimal protection and nutrition. Most babies start to eat complementary food at around 6 months. To get the right balance of nutrients and energy at this important time of transition, this food needs to be diverse and healthy. The way these early foods are given is also important. A carer who encourages a child to eat, without forcing but with fun, is encouraging a life-long love of good food.
In 2017, UNICEF supported the Ministry of Health to conduct the National Nutrition Survey. 4,200 households were surveyed, in rural and urban areas to find out just what kind of nutrition women and children are getting. The survey is also supported by the United Nations Population Fund, and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Uzbekistan. The results will be announced soon. The findings will help develop programmes to address malnutritionand promote balanced and healthy diet, in line with the Presidential Decree #2650 “On Measures to Further Improve Mother and Child Health in 2016-2020”.
Mr. Graumann, how about the role of parents in the child’s early age?
A safe and stimulating home environment, which allows children to play, explore and discover the world, is a very important condition for the development of the child. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes that for the full development of a child’s personality, he or she should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.
According to a global study published in Lancet, a baby’s brain cells can form 1,000 new connections every second. These connections in the brain are created more effectively when parents interact with their babies in simple ways such as comforting them, reading to them, hugging them, talking and singing to them.
A child’s trust and attachment to a few key figures is paramount; through conversation and exchange with loved ones they learn to enjoy social interaction.
Equally, children must be empowered from an early age to become the authors of their own lives. They must be prepared to make their own decisions and to grow into powerful and competent participants in society. The process of nurturing young children to achieve this begins in the earliest stages of life and heavily depends on the environment in which a child is raised.
Now, as a father, I can tell you that it’s not only mothers that have an important role to play in child development! Many studies of men and their interaction with children reveal that men are not only capable of nurturing children, but they do it in ways which are distinctly different from women. Men often tend to structure play and interaction with children around a task, game, or project whereas women tend to structure play and interaction around an idea or make-believe situation. The differences in such approaches seem to have a beneficial effect on children.
Two parents who interact with their children uniquely and, often, in contrasting ways, offers variety in the interactive experiences for these children and also fosters a capacity for these children to attach to each parent as a separate individual with distinct relational styles.
It's important to note that this father figure doesn't have to be a biological father in order for children to benefit. It can be an adoptive father, stepfather, or an adult male in the household.
Mr. Graumann, what are your views on the importance of preschool education and school readiness?
Preschool education is important for all, but it can really level the playing field for kids who are poor or disabled and allow them to get the boost they need to fully engage in learning.
Quality early learning has wide-ranging benefits for society; more children attend school and have high academic performance. At present, in Uzbekistan, 77 per cent of children aged 2-7 do not attend preschool and millions of children are missing out on the chance to develop important social, emotional, and language skills, and to get prepared for school.
However, the Government has been working tirelessly on improving the quality of early education, and is focusing on the State Programme for addressing this critical issue. We would like to commend the Government for establishing a new Ministry of Preschool Education.
The number of kindergartens is gradually increasing and UNICEF and the Government are working together to further improve the quality of preschool education services, and make sure that children from vulnerable families also have access to these services. Sustainable Development Goal 4 is related to education, and it aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. We appreciate the Government of Uzbekistan’s commitment to align the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development Goals with Uzbekistan’s national development priorities.
UNICEF has been supporting the Government of Uzbekistan in developing a new Law on Preschool Education, Early Learning Development Standards, a Competency- based curriculum, alternative and innovative models for expanding preschool education, development of Public Private Partnership models, financing mechanisms and most importantly, the development of a robust Education Management Information System (EMIS) for monitoring preschool education development.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize once again that from the moment a child is conceived, there is an opportunity to nurture the development of a productive and contented member of society. Three key aspects, good food, strong relationships and a love of learning will contribute towards the creation of happy, healthy children who grow into happy, healthy adults.
What we sow now, we will reap in the future.
There is no better moment to invest in the development of the next generation than in a child’s first years of life. This holds true both for the investment of Governments and organisations such as UNICEF, and the all-important investments of time and love that parents make on a daily basis.