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The first 1 000 days

- Wits University

Linda Richter is a Distinguished Professor and Director of the Wits Centre of Excellence in Human Development.

From the second that a baby is born, its life is determined by its mother’s emotions, and the way in which its mother reacts to it.

“Babies look for the human face, because their brains are primed to receive certain kinds of input from human beings,” says Distinguished Professor Linda Richter.

“When a mother leads a poverty-stricken life it can detract from her ability to feel relaxed or be emotionally available to her baby, including depression. This detrimentally affects the future development of her baby.”

Richter, who has a PhD in Psychology, joined Wits as a Distinguished Professor in May 2014. With her main research interests being in life course human development issues – from infancy to young adulthood, parenting and middle-age – Richter’s work in Early Childhood Development (ECD) has been so influential, that the national programme on ECD that she and her team developed has been gazetted for public comment in March 2015.

“This is a huge step forward because, as research demonstrates, the quality of nutrition and loving support that a baby gets in the first 1000 days of life has a profound impact on a child’s future development and ability to maximise his or her potential throughout life,” says Richter.

Richter, the director of the Wits Centre of Excellence in Human Development, has been working closely alongside Wits Professor Shane Norris, director of the MRC/Wits Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit. The Unit has been running one of the world’s most significant multigenerational studies on human development in a middle-income country.

Named the Birth to Twenty-Plus Programme, their team has been following mothers, their children and their children’s children to collect data on early childhood development in low- and middle-income countries since 1990.

Of the 3273 babies enrolled in the programme at the outset of the study, they have maintained contact with 2 300 for 18 years, through yearly or twice yearly data collection waves.

“It is completely multidisciplinary, covering biological, social, psychological, and economic issues that affect health and development over the life course.”

This work has had a significant impact on the field of early childhood development and early determinants of health and human capital.

“We have numerous collaborations, national and international, and we are putting considerable energy into postgraduate development and into helping students and fellows publish in peer-reviewed journals as we would like them to make research and academia their career,” says Richter.