United Nations UNICEF appealed Tuesday for countries to guarantee that children under 3 receive food, clean water and health care during the growth phase that is most critical to brain development.
In its annual "State of the World's Children" report, the U.N. Children's Fund said more investment in early childhood development would produce a healthier, more productive population while saving money for remedial education and health care.
Every dollar spent during the first 36 months of life saves $7 per person on such services later, the agency said, citing studies.
"Every year, some 129 million babies around the world begin an extraordinary developmental sprint from defenseless newborns to proactive 3-year-olds," UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy told a news conference.
"And every year, countless numbers of them are stopped in their tracks deprived in one way or another of the love, care, nurturing health, nutrition and safe environment that they need to grow," she said.
Research shows nutrition and environmental stimulants dramatically affect a child's brain in the first 36 months of life when a child develops the ability to think, speak, learn and reason, the report said.
But governments and even agencies like UNICEF have tended to neglect children in these crucial years, focusing instead on boosting survival rates among infants and then picking up several years later with efforts to improve access to education, the report said.
"That doesn't mean young children are totally ignored," Bellamy said in an interview. But the UNICEF report seeks to highlight the long-term benefits of early care.
It also estimated the cost of giving every newborn child a good start in life: $80 billion.
Governments can boost their chances of producing generations of smart, competitive adults by registering all children at birth, protecting them from violence and guaranteeing adequate food, clean water and health care, the report said.
Bellamy said the report targeted families as well as officials, because most infants and toddlers spend the majority of their time in the care of their parents and relatives rather than the state.
Experts say one cause of widespread malnutrition in South Asia, for example, is that some parents do not feed their children solid food in their first year because of religious beliefs.