Established with a generous gift of S$30 million from the Lien Foundation, the Centre for Holistic Initiatives for Learning and Development, will provide a multi-disciplinary approach to improve the health and developmental outcomes of children in Singapore and beyond.

The Centre for Holistic Initiatives for Learning and Development (CHILD), established with a generous gift of S$30 million from the Lien Foundation will provide a multi-disciplinary approach to translating critical research to intervention, to improve the health and developmental outcomes of children in Singapore and beyond.

The first of its kind in Asia, CHILD will build on an unmatched reservoir of clinical data on mothers and children in Singapore, provided by a much-cited research study – the GUSTO (Growing Up in Singapore Towards healthy Outcomes) cohort. The GUSTO study is a major collaborative research effort involving the National University Health System, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, and A*STAR’s Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences as well as international researchers in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and other countries.

CHILD is an inclusive, multi-collaborative effort, whose founding partners include the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore (NUS Medicine), Lien Foundation, Centre for Evidence and Implementation (CEI), and A*STAR’s Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), and aims to work with multiple partners in the local early childhood and family services space.

Its main key propositions include: a multi-disciplinary approach in bringing together professionals from a variety of disciplines; helping to build capability and capacity at all levels and spheres within the early childhood space, involving its network of partners and collaborators; closing the gap between the evidence for what works to give children the best start to life and the effective implementation of this in policy-making and service delivery; use of innovative, novel screening tools and more. Learn more in the press release here.

“The work of CHILD will promote efforts to maximise the developmental potential of children, with a focus on their emotional, cognitive, and social well-being, from conception to primary school years. The centre’s emphasis is in line with Singapore’s national drive to boost the health and well-being of mothers and their children and ensure a good start to life for all children in Singapore,” said Professor Chong Yap Seng, Dean of the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, NUS and Executive Director, Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), A*STAR.

“In a time of rapid social and technological change, we believe the convergence of disciplines and collaborative talents will inspire and propel new ways of uplifting the early childhood ecosystem,” said Mr Lee Poh Wah, CEO, Lien Foundation.

“We see CHILD as an investment in the future and represents a commitment to support the national ambition of maximising human potential and enhancing the health and wellbeing of the next generation. We look forward to co-creating solutions with forward-thinking partners to ultimately achieve better outcomes for our young,” said Mr Lee.

In gathering and synthesising the latest evidence and data across disciplines from Singapore and in the region, which will be used to guide and inform social policies and programmes and to accelerate the process from research and evidence to policy and intervention, CHILD will aim to engage and bring together key stakeholders in the local early childhood and family services space comprising government institutions such as the Health Promotion Board, social service agencies, pre-schools and other institutions, as well as international partners.

CHILD Evidence Briefs

CHILD has produced two ‘Evidence Insights’ on maternal mental health and the impact of digital media use on children’s brain development. The key findings and recommendations are outlined below:

1. Maternal mental health affects brain development in children

Research from GUSTO, which aims to understand how conditions in pregnancy and early childhood influence the health and development of women and children, has shown that nearly 40% of mothers in Singapore displayed depressive symptoms during pregnancy. Even at mild to moderate levels, this distress experienced by the mothers may affect the cognitive and emotional development and function of the child, and may go on to have an adverse impact on their school readiness, academic performance and even mental health. The impairment of these functions places the child at a lifelong disadvantage.

“These are significant findings that underscore the need for proactive intervention to take place as early as pre-conception, during pregnancy, and early postnatal period. This will ensure the optimal development of executive functions in the early years of their children and reduce the risks of lifelong downstream disadvantages. Interventions need to focus on both the mother and infant, with parental needs being supported even before the child is born,” explained Associate Professor Robyn Mildon, Co-Director of CHILD and Founding Executive Director of the Centre for Evidence and Implementation (CEI).

2. Adverse impact of passive screen time on children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development

The early childhood years also present a crucial period to shape a child’s cognitive development. In a study led by Assistant Professor Evelyn Law from the Department of Paediatrics at NUS Medicine and Principal Investigator, Translational Neuroscience Programme, Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences, A*STAR, which drew findings from GUSTO, it was found that locally, almost all infants and toddlers under two years of age are exposed to approximately two hours of digital media a day via electronic screen-based devices.

High levels of passive viewing screen time during these early years may have adverse consequences for cognitive development in later childhood, including poorer eating behaviour, poor sleep, attention difficulties, near-sightedness, as well as developmental delays.

“Findings from recent studies are presenting clear evidence that high amounts of passive viewing screen time in early childhood are associated with numerous developmental and behavioural issues, including language delays, social communication deficits, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) traits.  This is a worrying trend and a key public health concern that we can, and ought to address, especially in this digital age where increased digital media use in infants and toddlers is ubiquitous,” said Professor Lee Yung Seng, Co-Director of CHILD and Head of Paediatrics at NUS Medicine.“Based on current evidence, CHILD would recommend no passive screen time for children below 18 months and not more than one hour per day of unsupervised, passive screen viewing for children between 18-36 months of age,” added Assistant Professor Evelyn Law.

“Children are the future of our society. For long-term benefit across generations and to ensure optimal outcomes for the children, we urgently need to start focusing on women’s maternal mental health and well-being before pregnancy through to after birth. By amalgamating and integrating the research efforts in early childhood development, from pre-conception to pregnancy to the child’s infancy and early growing up years, the Centre is uniquely poised to accelerate this paradigm shift in our understanding of brain development and function in young children,” said Professor Chong Yap Seng.

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This story was first published by NUS Medicine.