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Why the first 2,000 days of a child's life are the most important

Professors Marla Sokolowski, and Stephen Lye

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

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.

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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?

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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 terms of what this institute is about, we can look at early interventions to set those things right.

Will you be able to drill down into individual cases?

Sokolowski: Researcher Tom Boyce's work suggests that some children are born as orchids and some as dandelions. The dandelion kid is less sensitive to their environment and they grow and thrive even with some early adversity. But the orchid child needs to be exquisitely watered and at the right temperature and humidity. That's the kid if you put wool socks on him when he's little, he'll run around screaming. Some of the researchers here are thinking more about the match or the interaction in parenting between the parent and child, and if you have a highly sensitive child or a less sensitive child, how do you maximize the potential of each child. We're learning there are individual differences and these developmental paths are there on the average, but some individuals are more or less affected by the environment.

But you don't want us parents to stress out any more than we already do.

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Lye: We actually don't intend it as a blaming game. It's more about wellness, I think. We know that no one can do everything. We know that certain parts of our population have environments where it makes it incredibly difficult to do these things. It's really a question of informing society, having information out there and then supporting people through these initiatives.

And none of this is black and white. So just because you didn't breastfeed for three months or whatever, it doesn't mean necessarily there are going to be massive problems.

Sokolowski: None of this is determined, that is the good news. It means there are always opportunities to intervene and make things better.

Lye: Our focus is on the first 2,000 days because that's when the key systems are laid down. And because they're laid down, it's probably easier to mitigate the effects.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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