A baby's experiences in their first 1,000 days of life — from conception to age 2 — can have a lifelong effect on their health and wellbeing. Making sure your child has what they need in their early years will help set them up for a healthy life.
What is 'the first 1,000 days'?
The first 1,000 days refers to a child's life from the moment they are conceived until they have reached 2 years of age (24 months). This is a time when their brain, body and immune system grows and develops significantly.
Research shows that a pregnant mother's health, nutrition and stress levels can have an effect on the future of her baby. After the baby is born, their own physical environment, nutrition and relationships can have a lifelong impact on their health and wellbeing.
In their first 1,000 days, babies need:
- healthy food
- loving relationships
- safety and security
- time to play
- a healthy environment — including in the womb
Your baby's brain in the first 1,000 days
A baby's brain develops more quickly during the first 1,000 days than at any other time of life. The way the brain moulds and adapts to its environment contributes to the sort of person the baby will grow into.
The right diet (nutrition) during pregnancy and in early childhood will help a baby's learning, physical skills and emotions to develop properly.
Being hungry or exposed to stress or abuse during this time can have a lifelong effect on a child's development. Since the brain is closely linked to the rest of the body, an unsafe or unhealthy environment in the first 1,000 days can affect a child's physical health in later life too.
Good nutrition in the first 1,000 days
Receiving good nutrition in the womb and through early life is essential for a child's future health. Research has shown that what a mother eats, her weight and her lifestyle habits can influence how the baby's metabolism, immune system and organs develop. Poor nutrition during pregnancy and early life can lead to obesity, heart disease and stroke later on.
To give your baby the best possible start in life, it's important to eat a healthy diet while you're pregnant and to breastfeed for at least 6 months if possible. Once your baby starts solids, you can help them develop healthy eating habits for life.
Effects of stress and trauma in the first 1,000 days
Research has shown that if a mother is under a lot of stress while pregnant, this can affect the baby's nervous system and growth. This can lead to health problems later in life, including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.
Stress caused by violence in the home can affect babies. Parents who are experiencing family (domestic) violence may not be able to form a loving attachment with their baby.
Of course, often stress and trauma are unavoidable. It's not your fault and help is available. If you are experiencing a very stressful situation when you're pregnant or you have a young child, speak to your doctor or child health nurse.
You can also call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) at any time of the day or night if you are experiencing violence.
Safety and security in the first 1,000 days
Loving, secure relationships are vital for a child's development. It's through their relationships that babies learn to think, understand, communicate, show emotions and behave. Relationships affect how they see the world and how they fit into society.
Poverty during the first 1,000 days
There is a link between poverty in infancy and adverse health and wellbeing outcomes later in life. This may be partly because the stress on parents caused by financial hardship can prevent them from providing the level of care their baby needs.
If you are experiencing poverty, there are things you can do to help your baby build resilience in the first 1,000 days:
- Ask for help and accepting practical support. Learn about government-funded financial benefits for families here.
- Manage your own stress — for example, by avoiding fighting or using drugs or alcohol to cope.
- Make your baby feel secure and loved.
- Do fun, low-cost activities together as a family.
What you can do to give your baby the best chance
To ensure the best possible first 1,000 days for your baby:
- eat a healthy diet when you're pregnant
- avoid smoking, alcohol or drugs
- if you're experiencing violence or trauma, seek help
- breastfeed for at least 6 months, if you can
- make sure your baby has a healthy diet
- give your baby lots of love and attention so they feel secure
Where to go for help
For advice and guidance, call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 (between 7am and midnight AET, 7 days a week).
For more information about the first 1,000 days, visit these websites:
- Raising Children
- 1,000 Days
- First 1,000 Days Australia (for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families)
- Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY)
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Last reviewed: December 2019