Psychosocial stimulation in early childhood has long term benefits for stunted children’s emotional outcomes and attention, finds a sixteen-year study published on bmj.com today.
Growth retardation or stunting affects 30% of children under 5 years globally and is associated with poor development and behavioural problems in late adolescence. Some studies suggest that psychosocial stimulation in early childhood reduces antisocial behaviour and delinquency in adolescence, but evidence is limited.
So researchers set out to determine whether dietary supplementation or psychosocial stimulation given to stunted children early in life had any long term benefits for their psychosocial functioning in late adolescence.
In 1986-7, they identified 129 stunted children (age 9-24 months) living in poor neighbourhoods of Kingston, Jamaica. Children were assigned to one of four groups: control (no intervention), supplementation with 1 kg milk based formula each week, stimulation (weekly play sessions with mother and child), or both, for two years.
In 2002-3, 103 adolescents aged 17-18 years were re-examined to assess their psychosocial functioning (self esteem, anxiety, depression, and antisocial behaviour).
Those who had received stimulation reported less anxiety, less depression, and higher self esteem, and parents reported fewer attention problems. Supplementation had no significant effect.
Psychosocial stimulation in early childhood had sustained benefits for the psychosocial functioning of stunted children, say the authors. The next challenge is to develop interventions that can meet the needs of the enormous number of stunted children, they conclude.