Introduction

This research summary brings together the most recent research on the impact of early  childhood on future health. It presents the evidence on the role that the health sector might
have in providing cost-effective programmes and services for children and their families. It outlines five key actions that the Faculty of Public Health Medicine feels would strengthen
the role of the health services in the lives of children. It advocates for additional and ringfenced resources to support child health and wellbeing and calls for continued health service involvement in efforts across sectors to provide a multi-agency, co-ordinated response to support children and their families and communities.

The experiences that a child has in early childhood impact on the health of that child when he or she reaches adulthood. Babies’ brains undergo rapid development before birth and in the early years of life (Centre on the Developing Child, 2009). Adverse experiences which occur in this critical developmental period impact negatively on the developing brain and on other sensitive organs. Such impacts may be seen in childhood but often manifest only in later adult years as chronic disease, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, mental health disorders (Centre on the Developing Child, 2010). The health and wellbeing of our current child population, therefore, determines the health of our future adult population.

There are a number of early childhood interventions aimed at child development,  educational disadvantage and parenting which have been shown to be effective in improving child health and wellbeing, and thus later adult health and wellbeing. Investment in these programmes and services provides a greater rate of return than later interventions, with the most effective time to intervene being before birth and in early childhood (Heckman J and Masterov D, 2007; Wave Trust, 2013). These interventions can help to break the cycle of disadvantage and lay the foundation for addressing health inequalities (Marmot M, 2010). The health and wellbeing of our children is not solely determined by what happens in the  healthcare arena, but the health service has a unique and valued role in the provision of services for pregnant women, babies and the families of young children. These help to build the foundation for a healthy childhood environment and supportive parenting.