A new paper published by a team of social scientists and public health specialists concludes that some 200 million children around the world are failing to meet their developmental potential each year.
What’s lacking, say the experts, is social interaction with the children and engagement by their caretakers.
The panel, comprising 32 academic experts assembled by the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, provides significant evidence that in the same way that lack of food can harm children, violence, deprivation and neglect are also damaging their brain circuitry.
And that, they say, contributes to physical and social stunting despite aid programs.
Neil Boothby, a professor with the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York, said "investing" in young children is "vital to ensuring international peace and security."
Looking beyond survival, he said that providing positive social interactions is "as big a part of development as providing food and water."
“This becomes part of actually strengthening the circuitry in the brain," Boothby said. "When the response isn’t there, or it’s episodically there, then that same circuitry, that same brain architecture, is weakened. So it is not just micronutrient. It is also social care.”
Aid programs insufficient
Boothby said studies show that international assistance programs alone are not enough to help children reach their full potential.
He's just returned from a visit to Uganda, where he said more than a third of the population suffers from stunting, marked by smaller stature and lower IQs.
“For example, I met with some parents on this last trip," he said. "And the fathers were saying, 'Ah, you know, I don’t really engage with the child until he or she is 3 months old because they are too little.' I mean, that’s counter to what they should be doing, because holding, talking, caressing, et cetera, is all part of brain health.”
The paper, Boothby said, is a call for nurturing by parents and caretakers to be added to the list of global health and nutrition assistance programs and concerns.
“We teach parents when they go to clinics about water and sanitation," he said. "We teach them about the kinds of foods children should eat. Why aren’t we teaching them the things that make brains grow?”
Boothby added that it's time for international aid policies to catch up with the science by combining the neurobiology of caring with other forms of global assistance.