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Early Years Family Support

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:51 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire 3:51 pm, 16th July 2019

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to launch off in a completely different direction. He is right that, all too often, troubled families who have further children go on to have further problems, but the whole point of early intervention is that it can turn around the outcomes for all the family’s children, not just the new one. The programme is vital.

Insecure attachment in the early years has a cost to society in terms of not only human happiness but the financial cost to individuals, families and the public purse. As Professor James Heckman, a winner of the Nobel memorial prize in economics, has demonstrated, the return on every dollar invested in the 1,001 critical days delivers an exponential financial benefit in later life. Not only is early-years intervention good for human happiness; it is also good for the public purse.

There are two profound areas of impact on the foetus and, then, the infant during the 1,001 critical days. The first is the level of cortisol, the stress hormone, and the second is the extent of the development of the infant’s prefrontal cortex. We know that a pregnant mother who suffers from stress produces more cortisol, which is easily transmitted via the placenta to the unborn child. The more stressed the mother, the more frequently the foetus is exposed to higher levels of cortisol.

The mother’s stress levels could be due to insecure employment, financial instability, the worry that her partner might leave her or the difficulties of being a single mum living in temporary or unsuitable housing, and so on. We know that exposure to high levels of cortisol can lead to modifications in gene expression while the foetus’s brain is still developing. Even in the womb, the potential for lifelong emotional and physical health is being determined.

We also know that maternal stress can lead to low birth weight, which can lead to all sorts of later complications, including diabetes, obesity and congenital heart disease. Once he or she is born, a baby left endlessly to cry themselves to sleep, or who is neglected or abused, will experience higher cortisol levels, which can over time lead to a lifelong higher tolerance of stress and an increased likelihood of being attracted to high-risk behaviour such as drug abuse, violence, criminality and so on.

We also know the critical role that the prefrontal cortex plays in developing the social and empathetic capacity of human beings. The prefrontal cortex is hardly present at birth, with the greatest growth spurt happening between six and 18 months, largely stimulated by the attention of a loving adult carer. Games like peekaboo, gazing into the baby’s eyes, smiling and mimicking them, and saying, “I love you. Aren’t you gorgeous?” [Interruption.] That is not directed at you, Mr Deputy Speaker. [Hon. Members: “Ah.”] I take that back, as it was mean. You are gorgeous. It is just that you are not in my arms. All that, in those 1,001 critical days, acts to jump-start the growth of the prefrontal cortex and the development of that vital human empathic capability.

However, if mum or dad is depressed, or if the baby suffers adverse childhood experiences, such as witnessing domestic violence, sexual abuse or substance misuse, that can have a significantly damaging effect on the development of the prefrontal cortex and the baby’s ability to regulate their own emotions. That, extraordinarily, can affect the ability in later years to cope with life’s challenges and opportunities, to form strong relationships and even to hold down a job. At the extreme end, the impact will be disastrous for that baby’s own future life and therefore for society at large. So love—a secure early bond—is what we want for all babies, although that is far from what is happening today.