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Last update: Jul 2012


The United Nations’ definition of early childhood refers to the period up to eight years of age whereas most official statistics, including the early childhood indicators from household surveys such as the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), collect data for children under the age of five.

The challenge


Early childhood, which spans the period of a child’s life up to eight years of age,1 is critical for cognitive, social, emotional and physical development. Events in the first few years of life are formative and play a vital role in shaping social and health outcomes2 and in building human capital, thereby promoting economic productivity later in life.3


During early childhood, billions of highly integrated neural circuits in the brain are established through the interaction of genetics, environment and experiences. It is during these early years that the newly developing brain is highly plastic and responsive to change. Optimal brain development requires a stimulating environment, adequate nutrients and social interaction with attentive caregivers.4


Because of the exceptionally strong influence of early experiences, the first years of life are a time of both tremendous opportunity and equally great vulnerability. In 2007, estimates published in The Lancet showed that more than 200 million children under the age of five in developing countries fail to reach their full potential.5 The estimate was based on ‘proxy’ indicators (namely stunting and poverty) because no other indicators of child development in developing countries existed at the time.


Early Childhood Development (ECD) encompasses many dimensions of a child’s well-being, so measuring it is an imprecise science. UNICEF has been working with countries to close this knowledge gap and develop indicators to measure the status of ECD through the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS). Indicators designed to assess the quality of a child’s home environment and access to early childhood care and education were included in the third round of MICS (MICS3), implemented mainly in 2005 and 2006. The majority of countries participating in MICS3 included these indicators on early learning and child development, representing the first time that data on these specific topics were collected from such a large cross-section of low- and middle-income countries.


For the fourth round of MICS (MICS4), data collection was expanded to include an Early Child Development Index (ECDI) that aims to measure the developmental status of children within four domains: literacy-numeracy, physical, social-emotional and learning (see ECD indicators in MICS section for a detailed description of the ECDI). An important advantage of MICS is the ability to disaggregate the data to reveal important inequities faced by children such as those related to gender, area of residence, ethnicity and household poverty.


Along with existing evidence about the developing brain, this new data on ECD collected through MICS, provide a compelling case for more effective, better resourced and targeted interventions on early childhood development.



1. Report of the Secretary-General on the implementation of The Convention on the Rights of the Child in early childhood, United Nations, New York, Document no. A/65/206, 2010.


2. Shonkoff, Jack P., et al., From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2000.

3. Heckman, James J., ‘Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children’, Science, vol. 312, no. 5782, 30 June 2006, pp. 1900–1902.

4. Tang, Akaysha C., et al., ‘Programming Social, Cognitive and Neuroendocrine Development by Early Exposure to Novelty’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 103, no. 42, 9 October 2006, pp. 15716–15721.


5. Grantham-McGregor, Sally, et al., ‘Developmental Potential in the First 5 Years for Children in Developing Countries’, Lancet, vol. 369, no. 9555, 6 January 2007, pp. 60–70.