A healthy start in life: the NHMRC evaluates the evidence

  • A baby
NHMRC Public Health Team
National Health and Medical Research Council

The first year of a child’s life is an important period for social and emotional development. The practices and behaviours of parents and other caregivers are crucial for children’s early social and emotional development. There is increasing recognition that foetal development and infancy are vital periods of rapid physical, physiological, psychological and neurological growth. This growth manifests itself in children’s extensive cognitive, physical and social-emotional development in those early years.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recently analysed the evidence on programs and services delivered during pregnancy or the first year of life that may influence infant social and emotional development and wellbeing. A Report of this evidence was released by the Chief Executive Officer of the NHMRC, Professor Anne Kelso AO, in early May 2017.

The Report is for Australian organisations and services to use when developing policies, or designing and planning programs for parents or caregivers. An incidental benefit of this work for researchers is that it identifies important gaps in the evidence, and may serve to encourage future research involving purpose-designed, well-reported studies that can guide future policy and practice in Australia.

The importance of a ‘Healthy Start in Life’ was highlighted at the 14th National Rural Health Conference and in one of the recommendations of the Conference. The NHMRC’s Report may assist in supporting and delivering this recommendation.

Worldwide, governments and policy makers are increasingly recognising the need to identify early interventions that can be implemented universally or targeted to families of infants at higher risk of poor social and emotional development. Early interventions (during pregnancy or in the first year of a child’s life) can promote parent or caregiver practices and behaviours that support infant social and emotional development and wellbeing, and strengthen and improve the relationship between the parent or caregiver and the child.

Parents generally aspire to provide the best care possible within their capacities and circumstances. Parenting knowledge and capabilities can be modified and strengthened if parents are given access to life-stage specific, salient and comprehensible information and learning opportunities. The perinatal period presents an exceptional opportunity to provide parents and caregivers with guidance and education, as they try to parent to the best of their ability. Effective parenting foundations will give children a healthy start to life and contribute to children’s lifetime health and wellbeing.

In its evaluation, the NHMRC was interested in practices that were effective at a population level, and for more vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. Such practices ranged from preventive measures and early intervention strategies, through to clinical interventions. The NHMRC used a rigorous, internationally recognised approach to systematically assess and consider the evidence. GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation) provided a comprehensive framework for an independently contracted reviewer to evaluate 51 systematic reviews, and prepare for these findings to be translated into the Report by NHMRC’s expert committee.

Anne stated that the Report is the first of its kind for the NHMRC, expanding on the forms of advice the NHMRC offers the community and health professionals. The NHMRC believes this Report will be useful for service delivery areas and policy developers in helping them to base their programs on evidence, and be useful for researchers as they design high quality research to foster and improve the social and emotional wellbeing of Australian infants and children.

The Report is available at https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/book/promoting-social-and-emotional-development-and-wellbeing-infants-nhmrc-report-evidence as an online platform for ease of navigation, as well as in a printable pdf format.

A plain language summary of the Report is available here.

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