Advancing early childhood development through primary healthcare for a smart Bangladesh

In developing countries, including Bangladesh, nearly 250 million children under five fail to reach their full developmental potential due to factors such as poverty, malnutrition, and inadequate parenting skills. Alongside providing essential facilities for children's development, it is critical to implement early childhood stimulation programs and promote active participation. Today, icddr,b hosted a dissemination seminar at its Sasakawa Auditorium in Mohakhali, Dhaka, sharing decades of research on early childhood development through government primary healthcare initiatives aimed at maximising Bangladeshi children's potential for a smarter Bangladesh.
The foundation for child development begins when the mother becomes pregnant and continues until the child is three years old, known as the 'golden opportunity' for early childhood development. During this pivotal period, a child’s learning experiences significantly influence their intelligence, behaviour, and personality. Therefore, alongside ensuring the child’s health, nutrition, safety, and security, it is crucial to provide a nurturing environment enriched with love, play, and care to support their holistic development.
To enhance a child’s development, it is imperative for everyone in the family, including fathers, to play an active role. This includes attentively meeting the child’s needs, engaging in conversations to foster language skills, and providing age-appropriate toys for learning through play. Such collaborative efforts create a supportive environment that promotes the child’s growth and well-being.
Dr Jena Derakhshani Hamadani, Emeritus Scientist at the Maternal and Child Health Division (MCHD) of icddr,b, presented on icddr,b’s extensive research showing that play-based child-rearing programs significantly enhance children's cognitive, language, physical, and behavioural development.
Dr Hamadani reported that the Government of Bangladesh has prioritised early childhood development under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, specifically Target 4.2, which aims to ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care, and pre-primary education to prepare them for primary education. The government, in partnership with icddr,b, is implementing early childhood development programs through community clinics in the Primary Health Care system to enhance parents' childcare knowledge and skills, promoting holistic child development.
Currently, the program is implemented in 613 community clinics across 21 upazilas in four districts (Narsingdi, Habiganj, Brahmanbaria, Laxmipur). 485 health and family planning officials were trained on early childhood development, who then trained 1,821 frontline health workers, including Community Health Care Providers (CHCPs), Health Assistants (HAs), and Family Welfare Assistants (FWAs), to deliver these services. As a result, more than 14,000 caregivers of children aged 6-36 months have so far been trained. Icddr,b’s evaluation found that participating mothers have improved knowledge and skills in child nurturing practices, indicating the initiative’s potential in fostering talented children and shaping a smarter Bangladesh.
Dr Hamadani concluded that comprehensive child development can be accelerated affordably through age-appropriate play. With the support of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, we hope to expand the program effectively to all the community clinics in the country and help build a smarter Bangladesh.
The seminar was honoured by the participation of Dr Samanta Lal Sen, Honourable Minister of MoHFW, as the Chief Guest, and Dr Rokeya Sultana, MP, Honourable State Minister of MoHFW, and Professor Dr Abul Bashar Mohammad Khurshid Alam, Director General of DGHS, as Special Guests.
Dr Tahmeed Ahmed, Executive Director of icddr,b, delivered the welcome address, thanking the honourable ministers for their first visit to icddr,b and appreciating the Government’s partnership in early childhood development programmes. He also presented some of icddr,b’s research, showcasing the organisation’s impact over the years.
In his address, the Honourable Minister Dr Sen stressed the importance of early childhood development and commended the initiative, saying, “Children are the future of this country. If we can foster their mental development from childhood, undoubtedly, they will grow up to become leaders. So, we will continue to work together as a partner with icddr,b to promote child development.”
The Honourable State Minister Dr Rokeya Sultana, thanked icddr,b and DGHS for implementing such a timely intervention. She said, “icddr,b's work on children's mental and physical development is commendable. It is crucial to consider the environment in which they are being raised. This includes their homes, surroundings, schools, and more. Ensuring a proper environment is essential for their development as well.”
Dr Shams El Arifeen, Senior Director of MCHD at icddr,b, delivered the closing remarks, expressing gratitude to the Government for partnering with icddr,b and leading the initiative. He also highlighted the critical importance of enhancing parenting knowledge as Bangladesh transitions from extended family to nuclear family structures. With many parents being first-time parents who lack proper child-rearing knowledge, he emphasised the need for targeted support and education to ensure the well-being and development of their children. 
The seminar was well attended by several line directors of the DGHS, and representatives from government and non-government organisations, and international development agencies, involved in child development initiatives.