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Why early years matter for every child

A recent report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) painted a grim picture of Nigerian children under the age of five, which deserves the urgent attention of all parents and levels of government. The global report entitled “Early Moments Matter for Every Child,” which was launched in Abuja, said that out of 22.2 million children in that age category in the country, more than half are at risk of poor development because they lack early childhood support.                 

The report claimed that Nigeria was putting these children at severe risk, both physically and mentally, because national policies are not providing adequate foundation for their growth. It proffered three critical policies that could give parents the time and resources required to support their children’s healthy development. These are: two years of free pre-primary education, six months of paid maternity leave and four weeks of paid paternity leave.

With the exception of Lagos State, no state in the country gives paid paternity leave. Indeed, the UNICEF report noted that, “Nigeria currently has just three months of paid maternity leave, only one year of free pre-primary education and no paternity leave at all.” Besides, only about one in every ten pre-primary children is enrolled in early education activities. This report highlights the gritty truth of the miserable state of children under-five and women of childbearing age in the country. Government and parents should take the report as a wake-up call, and not see it as an attempt to taint Nigeria’s image.   

We agree with the recommendations of the global agency, which highlight the need for huge investment in early childhood development. This is a sensible thing to do to redress this sad situation. A previous UNICEF report had claimed that “every single day, Nigeria loses about 2,300 under-five children and 145 women of childbearing age.” This is unacceptable. A 2016 national survey by the organisation also indicated that 31 percent of children under-five were moderately or severely underweight in Nigeria, and that “stunting as a result of malnutrition can cause irreversible physical and mental retardation.”

Although the government, through the Ministry of Health and some international agencies, has repeatedly emphasised the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life to ensure its optimal physical and mental development, not many mothers adhere to this.

Many surveys show that only 24 percent of Nigerian children are exclusively breastfed for six months.  There is no denying the fact that early childhood physical and mental development is critical to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Investment in child development, as experts have advised, should include services to support caregivers, quality pre-primary education and good nutrition, which will help to secure a healthy and productive future generation for the country.     

We urge all levels of government to design policies that can boost the wellbeing of children, especially in their infancy. It is heartening that the Federal Government has assured the nation that five percent of the 2017 Universal Basic Education Fund would be committed to the development of Early Childhood Education.   We also recommend that the pilot school feeding programme in seven states should be extended to more states. A balanced diet is important for healthy child development. It helps to arrest stunted growth. Access to good medication is also important for the prompt treatment of child killer diseases.   

Since statistics show that children in sub-Saharan Africa are more than 14 times more likely to die before the age of five than children in developed countries, priority attention should be given to the leading causes of death in children under-five years. These include preterm birth complications, pneumonia, birth asphyxia, diarrhea and malaria.

No investment is too much to help the Nigerian child achieve his/her full potential. 

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