Early Childhood: the importance of the early years

Early childhood - toddlers playing

This post is part of our series on what makes a good childhood.

Although intuition tells us how important a child’s early experiences are, the evidence is now overwhelming. A good childhood really is the foundation for a healthy adult life and cohesive society.

Over the previous decade, we have seen a greater focus on, and understanding of, the importance of childhood wellbeing, both from an objective and subjective perspective. It is now generally understood that children’s wellbeing is crucial, not just for their own lives, but for society as a whole.

Antenatal period

Because healthy development in the earliest years is dependent on the future mother’s health and social environment before she becomes pregnant, taking action to support healthy child, adolescent and adult development sets the critical foundations for health and social development in the early years.

Critical impacts in the antenatal period include:

  • Exposure to maternal substance use
  • Maternal nutritional behaviour
  • Mother’s mental and physical health.

Early brain development

The basic architecture of the brain is constructed through a process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. The first few years of life are a period of intense activity in the developing brain: billions of connections are rapidly being formed between individual neurons across different areas of the brain that allow them to exchange information and form circuits. In the first few years of life, more than one million new neural connections form every second.

This architecture provides the foundations for all future learning, behavior and health and allow us to interpret information from our environment and interact with the world around us: every thought, feeling and action we perform originates from our brains.

Although individuals continue to develop beyond their childhoods, the environmental conditions to which children are exposed in the early years of development can have consequences for the rest of their lives.

Children who do not have the same opportunities as others, or who are exposed to negative experiences like maltreatment or witnessing domestic violence, often have poorer outcomes in comparison.

The heartening news is that research findings also tell us that there is not a ‘point of no return’ beyond which intervention for children and young people is useless, and that there is much we can do to prevent or reverse damaging outcomes. With an increasing number of positive protective factors, there is likely to be an increase in positive outcomes.

The most critical component in helping to prevent or reverse the impacts of negative stress and build resilience for children and young people, is the presence of stable, supportive, caring and committed parents, caregivers or adults.

Every risk factor that we can reduce matters.


ARACY (2013). Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth. Report Card: The wellbeing of young Australians.

Harvard University (2017). Center on the Developing Child. Early development: brain architecture.

Harvard University (2010). Center on the Developing Child. The Foundations of Lifelong Health are built in early Childhood.

Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (2017). Brain architecture and development.

Rutter, M. (1999) Resilience concepts and findings: implications for family therapy. Journal of Family Therapy; 21 (2): 119-144.

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