The first 1001 days of a child’s life

A closer look at the crucial period for brain and language development

The first 1001 days of a child’s life, from conception to their second birthday, are critical to the development of their complex brains and the cognitive skills that depend on them. This time marks the occurrence of milestones in motor skills such as sitting up and walking, but also language acquisition. Most of the process involved in learning to understand, speak and use your native language takes place in the first 1001 days of your life.

During your early development, the structure of your brain takes shape; together with the combination of all your genes and external influences (such as the family in which you grow up), this aspect plays a vital role in determining how you will develop. If something goes wrong in this delicate interaction, the consequences can be dire. In such cases, however, what precisely has gone wrong tends to be unclear – as is what we can do about it. A team of scientists from various fields will be working together with partners from outside the university to explore this theme, focusing on early language development.

Een moeder en twee kleine kinderen met een tablet

Language as a focal point

Language is a complex skill that is closely intertwined with proper brain development. Successful language development is a decisive factor in the well-being and happiness of young children, including later on in their lives. After all, language is what they use to express their wishes, to communicate with parents and peers and to understand one another. Also at school, children learn via verbal and written instructions. A language deficit or language development disorder increases a child’s risk of a learning deficit, with all the problems that it entails.

Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht possess tremendous expertise in the field of language and brain development. Our team of biologists, behavioural scientists and linguists are uniting all this knowledge and expertise for the very first time. Together, we are investigating various aspects of language development: through neurobiological research using cultured brain tissue, a study aimed at how zebra finches learn to sing (and what it can tell us about how children learn to speak) and monitoring a group of children with a language development disorder.

How do differences between individual children originate?

Unraveling early development

By bundling our knowledge, we hope to gain a better understanding of early brain development. What is going on inside the brain? Which internal factors affect this process during the first 1001 critical days? Which external influences are decisive? And from where do the differences between individual children come?

The first 1001 days of a child’s life determine, to a major extent, how well that child will function for the rest of its life. Greater knowledge of this crucial period will in future allow us to provide optimal support for the development of young children and offer effective help at an early stage to children whose language development is lagging, for example.

Link to society

Our goal is to find solutions to social issues in connection with this theme. In that way, we hope to connect science and practice as well as to develop specific instruments; for instance, to improve the efficacy of diagnosis and treatment while also making diagnosis possible at an earlier stage. In order to attain this objective, we are working together with social partners. Our shared goal is to combine our strengths so scientific research may reinforce knowledge and experience from professional practice as well as vice versa.

Our partners include the Municipality of Utrecht, the Royal Auris Group, Royal Kentalis, NSDSK and the Wilhelmina Children’s Hospital. First and foremost, however, Utrecht University is eager to find out what is needed. Which issues in connection with this theme exist within society, and how might we and our partners go about finding solutions to them?

Manifesto: The 1001 Critical Days

A number of Dutch organisations (Dutch Association for Infant Mental Health, Dutch Association of Psychologists, the Association of Educationalists in the Netherlands (NVO) and Stichting Babywerk) have developed a Dutch version of the manifesto The 1001 Critical Days, which underscores the importance of this developmental period.

Join us!

Interested in this project? Please contact dr. Tessel Boerma for further information:, +31 30 253 5713. 

The following organisations are participating in this theme: