Professor Kevin Fenton

Professor Kevin Fenton, Director for Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England, discusses how the crucial period from pregnancy to age 2 can shape a child’s physical and emotional health through into adulthood.

The earliest experiences, starting in the womb, shape a baby’s brain development. During the first two years of life the brain displays a remarkable capacity to absorb information and adapt to its surroundings. At age two, the connections that are being formed in a child’s brain are happening about twice as fast as in an adult’s brain.

What happens in pregnancy and early childhood impacts on physical and emotional health through into adulthood.

Supporting good maternal health is important for safe delivery and good birth weight to give babies the best start. The prevention of adverse health factors in pregnancy is vital. Premature and small babies are more likely to have poorer outcomes.

Enabling children to achieve their full potential and be physically and emotionally healthy provides the cornerstone for a healthy, productive childhood and adulthood.

Investing in early years’ services can improve babies’ and children’s health outcomes including:

  • early cognitive and non-cognitive development
  • social development
  • children’s readiness for school
  • later educational outcomes

It can also help to address health inequalities that disadvantage some from the very beginning of their lives. 

It makes strong sense to invest in the early years from an economic perspective as the long-term savings that can be generated are considerable. Social Return on Investment studies show returns of between £1.37 and £9.20 for every £1 invested in the early years.

This latest edition of PHE’s Health Matters, a resource for public health professionals, which brings together important facts, figures and evidence of effective interventions to tackle major public health problems, focuses on giving every child the best start in life.

This resource for local authorities and health professionals makes the case for investing in early years care from pregnancy to age 2, and outlines how to support women, and their partners, from conception through to pregnancy and into parenthood.

To assist with this, we have created a new suite of additional Health Matters resources which includes infographics, case studies, a short at-a-glance version, and presentations to help you make the case in your local area.

This edition includes advice on:

  • encouraging a healthy pregnancy
  • the importance of newborn screening and vaccination
  • encouraging secure attachment
  • promoting breastfeeding
  • improving maternal mental health

It also sets out the importance of The Healthy Child Programme which sits at the heart of services commissioned by local authorities for children and families. This is delivered as a universal service with additional services for those with specific needs and risks.

As the Chief Medical Officer has stated: “we need everyone in the public services to think family and children and young people at every interaction.”

This edition outlines the role for Health and Wellbeing Boards, commissioners such as Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and local authorities, and for healthcare practitioners.

Read the early years edition of Health Matters for more on what we can all do to improve our children’s health and ultimately the health of the nation. You can also visit the Health Matters collection page to view previous editions and to sign up to the e-bulletin.