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Improving health
Previously NHS Health Scotland

Conditions and experiences during pregnancy and the early years have a significant and long-term impact on a person’s life.

You will find resources below.

During the early years of life, organs of the body develop as do a number of complex biological systems.

At the same time the child develops socially, cognitively and emotionally. They build skills and relationships which provide a foundation for future health and life opportunities.

The impact of what happens during pregnancy and the early years of a child’s life can last a lifetime. This includes

  • the mother’s diet
  • whether she breastfeeds
  • whether she smokes or drinks.

Other childhood experiences that make an impact are

  • access to greenspace
  • extent of parental support
  • play and physical activity opportunities
  • exposure to parental stress, neglect and abuse
  • the level of parental interaction during the early years.

These factors can negatively or positively impact on their

  • health
  • future life chances
  • educational attainment
  • social and physical development.

The early years provide a vital window of opportunity to intervene to improve life chances.

You can read more data on pregnancy and early years on the Scottish Public Health Observatory (ScotPHO) website (external).

Pregnancy, early years, and health inequalities

Exposure to the kinds of risks in the early years that can impact on health across the life course is not evenly distributed across society.  Those living in deprived areas and on low incomes are at greater risk of negative early experiences than those living in affluent areas and on higher incomes.  For example

  • there are lower levels of exclusive breastfeeding among mothers in the most deprived areas
  • children living in the most deprived areas are more likely to be exposed to second hand smoke
  • babies born into the most deprived areas are more likely to be born prematurely and with low birthweight
  • mothers from the most deprived areas are more likely than women from more affluent areas to have a stillborn child or a child that dies in the first year of life.

By the time they get to toddling age, children born in deprived areas are more likely to have developmental difficulties, lagging up to nine months behind their friends from more affluent areas.

Local and national action

The Scottish Government’s Early Years Framework supports the National Outcome ‘our children have the best start in life and are ready to succeed’.  The framework sets out how the government, local partners and practitioners can tackle the significant inequalities faced by children in the most deprived settings.

For information on the national resources that are available to facilitate discussion and effective communication with parents and carers, look at our Early Years Information Pathway convering pre-birth to pre-school.

The Best Start is a five year forward plan for maternity and neonatal care in Scotland. The Scottish Government's Best Start report (external website) sets out the case for change in maternity and neonatal services in Scotland and describes a new model of care, supported by a series of recommendations.

You can contact us to find out more about our work in pregnancy and the early years.