The Baby Project

Published June 2, 2016 – by Anne van Heijst

The largest part of children’s brain development takes place in the first year after birth – a fact of which much of the Dutch population is unaware. The architecture of children’s brains in these early years is shaped primarily by interactions between the child and their caregiver. When a young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of cognitive and social skills. This is often referred to as the ‘serve and return’ principle, a metaphor from a game of tennis or ping-pong.

The absence of these responsive relationships is a serious threat to a child’s development and well-being. The lack of awareness about this fact that Kay Lankreijer and I identified in our research for the National ThinkTank (de Nationale DenkTank) led us to come up with the idea of the ‘Baby Project.’

Every year the Dutch National ThinkTank challenges 20-25 recent graduates and PhD students to research a pressing societal problem. In 2015 the National ThinkTank was supported by the Bernard van Leer Foundation to conduct research on “The Learning of the Future” for children aged 0 to 16. The aim was to investigate the challenges the educational system faces and that children will face in the future at school, pre-school and after school.

Within this research, Kay and I were responsible for looking at challenges for the learning of children aged 0 to 4. We found that the support young parents currently receive is insufficient, especially when it comes to clear, accessible and reliable information on early brain development and the important role of parents.

We are currently working at the Bernard van Leer Foundation to implement the ‘Baby Project’, which aims to create a science-based movement for early childhood in the Netherlands by connecting with local health services to improve the information and guidance given to young parents. The project will support parents by providing them with a clear, scientifically-approved guide on the essentials young parents should know about the cognitive, emotional and physical development of young children in their first 1000 days (from conception to their second birthday).

During the first stage of the project, over the past two months many of the top early childhood experts in the Netherlands have met at the Bernard van Leer Foundation offices. Working with specialists in information visualisation from the ArgumentenFabriek (“argument factory”), these specialists have communicated their common understanding of children’s development in the first 1000 days and why this is relevant in the short and long term. In the coming month, the result of these sessions will be translated into a set of practical guidelines for young parents, which will be approved by leading scientists and practitioners in the Dutch early childhood field before being distributed.

Practitioners and professionals who are involved in any programme that would be able to distribute these guidelines for young parents, when they are ready, are kindly invited to get in touch to discuss further possibilities of cooperation by sending an email to

More information about the ‘Baby Project’ will follow soon in our next blog.