Build the foundation for a healthy life

Goal 3

Build the Foundation for a Healthy Life by investing in early childhood brain development

A child’s first three years offer a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build a healthy brain, develop a curious and creative mind, and lay a strong foundation for a healthy, engaged, and capable community member. Beginning in utero, a baby’s brain is exposed to environmental stimuli that shape the physical structure of the brain. Advances in developmental biology and neuroscience show that positive early experiences and exposures before age three foster optimal brain development, while negative experiences and exposures impair brain development. This development, in turn, influences lifelong physical and behavioral health.

Our goal is to ensure that children, particularly those in low-income and vulnerable families, have the best chance at a healthy life. We invite application from partners committed to supporting planned and healthy pregnancies and optimal brain development during the first three years of a child’s life. We are particularly interested in approaches that emphasize the importance of a parent’s responsive relationship to their infant – referred to in the literature as ‘serve and return’ - which is key to building strong attachment and optimal brain development. Successful serve and return interactions maximize a child’s communication and social skills and strengthen his/her ability to deal with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as poverty, parental conflict, abuse or exposure to violence.


Health systems and families implement leading practices for early childhood brain development during pregnancy and the first 1,000 days of life

STRATEGY8: Support healthcare providers to strengthen early childhood brain development

The trusting relationship between healthcare providers and their patients sets the stage for important early childhood screenings and services. Clinicians at all levels, as well as support staff, are an essential part of the community that can provide low-income parents with the latest information, effective techniques, and respectful encouragement to optimize development for their infants and toddlers.

Examples of this kind of clinic-based work include but are not limited to:

  • Supporting practices and tools designed to help healthcare providers implement
    effective developmental screening, referrals to service, and follow-up as indicated 
  • Identifying and addressing instances of maternal depression 
  • Educating pregnant women and parents about early childhood brain development and connecting parents to programs and resources that build skill for and support “serve and return” practice within the parent/child relationship from infancy 

STRATEGY9: Support community-based organizations to provide training to families for early childhood brain development beginning at or before birth 

The greatest influencing factor in early childhood is the relationship between a child and a caring adult. We invite community organizations to propose work that builds the capacity of low-income families to strengthen that relationship in utero and from a child’s infancy through his/her third year.

Programs in alignment with our current interest in this strategy will: 

  • Impact the relationship between adult and child from the first days of infancy forward
  • Emphasize serve and return interactions
  • Use evidence-based or promising screening or evaluation tools to measure critical factors in adult/child attachment, relational health and/ or bonding

In relation to measuring impact at this critical developmental age, we welcome input from applicants around the best indicators of success in this work. While we recognize that quality child care settings are an essential part of the early childhood development continuum of care, this is not our focus. At this time, we are focusing funding on work that strengthens families’ relationships with their very young children outside of the formal child care context. We want to deepen understanding and skills within families such that brain-building practice is woven throughout the child’s experience. Similarly, we are very much aware that child protection systems play a critical role in this work, but our hope is that by investing in approaches and systems that empower families to brain-building activity with their young children we may prevent the need for a child’s involvement with those systems.