Two new reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) highlight the important role that early childhood experiences play in influencing lifelong learning, behavior and health.
Evidence has long shown that children who are stressed by adversity -- without stable, responsive relationships to provide a protective buffer -- have an increased risk of health-threatening behaviors and disease in adulthood. What’s new is how this happens. Advances in neuroscience and epigenetics are beginning to reveal the biological mechanisms underlying these well-established links.
In a new policy statement, “Early Childhood Adversity, Toxic Stress, and the Role of the Pediatrician: Translating Developmental Science Into Lifelong Health,” and accompanying technical report, both published in the January 2012 Pediatrics (published online Dec. 26, 2011), the AAP provides pediatricians with a framework to understand the sources of early life adversity, identify children at risk and collaborate with the community on effective treatments and services.
“Early childhood experiences direct which genes get turned on and when, so genes and experiences interact in a dynamic and cumulative way to determine which circuits in the developing brain are strengthened and which are lost,” said Andrew Garner, MD, FAAP, lead author of the statement and a member of the AAP Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. “In this way, early childhood experiences are physically embedded both within the brain and in how the genetic blueprint is used.”
According to the AAP, these advances in our understanding of the biology of early childhood adversity should have positive effects on health across the lifespan:
- It should allow for more effective interventions to prevent the lifelong repercussions of early life adversity;
- It underscores the need for early and sustained investments in children and families to prevent or minimize the impact of early life adversity;
- It should improve adult learning, productivity and health significantly in the future if wise investments are made now.
“Exciting new discoveries in the biological, behavioral, and social sciences provide a remarkable opportunity for pediatricians to catalyze a transformational approach to health promotion and disease prevention – both as front-line guardians of child well-being and as community leaders who are strategically positioned to inform more effective, science-based policies and services,” said Jack P. Shonkoff, MD, FAAP, lead author of the technical report and director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.