Why the first 2,000 days of a child's life are the most important
Tralee Pearce Published Thursday Sept 27th 2012
If you were going to try and solve the riddle of childhood obesity, who would you call? Doctors, geneticists, teachers or social workers? Why not all of them? That’s the premise behind a new research institute at the University of Toronto that will be delving into the potential – and the pitfalls – of early childhood health and well-being.
The Fraser Mustard Institute for Human Development, named for the late advocate of early childhood development, pulls together researchers from a wide range of fields under a virtual umbrella to tackle a wide range of issues. They’ll team up on research and teaching that focuses on the first 2,000 days of a child’s life – from conception to age five – in the hopes of pinpointing ways to set children on positive life trajectories.
Executive director Stephen Lye, who is also a professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto and a neo-natal expert, says the multidisciplinary institute will better reflect how a child actually develops – his or her health, education and socialization are unfolding constantly and simultaneously. “We’ve got to mirror that real-world development of that child,” he says.
Topics will include everything from childhood obesity to global questions such as how to integrate child soldiers back into their societies. We spoke to Lye and the institute’s academic director, geneticist Marla Sokolowski.
Why 2,000 days?
Lye:If you think about it, the miracle that has to occur from the time in which the egg is fertilized, when you have one single cell, to the time when 2,000 days later, you’ve got a healthy, jumping, happy, enthusiastic, inquisitive individual going off to school, and you think of the biology that has to happen during that period – to me, that’s nothing short of a miracle.
Don’t we already know that?
Sokolowski:The institute is based on a shift in thinking from the idea that it’s the nature/nurture dichotomy, that it’s all in our genes or all in our environment, so the child is born and the environment writes on it. Those are the two forces in science that were pulling this research area, in a way, apart.
Depending on your genetic makeup, you’re going to be more or less prone to be affected by that environment. It’s possible to understand how our experience gets imbedded into our biology. How our experience gets under our skin.
Can you give me an example of a topic you’d address?
Lye: I’ve worked on research with colleagues in Australia. They have data on children from when they were 18-week fetuses to, now, these kids are 21 years old. There is a genetic variant in a gene that means you have about three kilograms more fat mass. We could see the differences in the children’s BMI right back to when they were seven years of age.
Because we had all the information about the environment of these children, we could ask the question: If the child had the genetic makeup that made him or her prone to obesity, was there anything that happened early in their life that could mitigate that genetic adversity? And what we found was if they had breastfeeding exclusively for three-to six months, they could totally wipe out the adverse effect of that gene variant.
We now can really start to get to grips on mechanisms by which the environment impacts children differently based on their genetic makeup – but even better, in