Protecting babies and toddlers from toxic stress in conflicts and emergencies

Children in conflicts, Early childhood development, Education in emergencies, Theirworld


I vividly remember standing in the grocery store, maybe four years old, engrossed by the many types of breakfast cereal.

I wasn’t allowed to eat sweet cereal but I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask. Looking up, I discovered my mother was gone and I was alone. Instant panic, thumping heart and butterflies in my stomach – did she forget about me?

I walked, then ran, down the aisle calling for her. She wasn’t there. Tears sprang in my eyes and my cries grew louder. Did she leave me here? How would I find her again?

Suddenly there she was, with a hug and a smile. Though I’d been alone less than a few minutes, the wait and the search had felt endless and I’d never been so frightened. My mother’s tight embrace and reassurance comforted me, as she promised she’d never leave without me.

Many of us recall such an episode from our childhoods, smiling at how those few moments of needless panic leave such an enduring memory. But not every child is so lucky.

What if my mother didn’t come back? What if she was injured, or ill, or lost? What if she died trying to get to me? Imagine the terror and trauma if for days, weeks or even months I could not find her.

Tragically, this is the case for too many of the world’s children caught up in conflicts and emergencies, who are orphaned or separated from parents and family members. Countless more are forced to flee home, witness violence, and are deprived of the essentials for survival and well-being.

Around the world, 86.7 million children under seven have spent their entire lives in conflict and more than half of the world’s refugees are children.

A new report published today by Theirworld called Safe Spaces reveals that in a crisis environment, such as a natural disaster or civil war, the youngest children are exceptionally vulnerable, not only to physical dangers but also to psychological trauma, toxic stress and poor development.

Picture: Theirworld/Natalia Jidovanu


It’s easy to overlook the psychological burden that these terrible experiences can have on a child; we assume a baby won’t notice or remember what’s happening around her.

In reality, however, fear, stress and deprivation in the first years of life can take a significant toll on a young child, with serious and lifelong consequences.

Long-term or severe exposure to adversity – from losing a parent, witnessing violence, experiencing deprivation or neglect or abuse – can lead to toxic stress, which hinders healthy brain development.

Toxic stress can lead to developmental delays, learning difficulties and behavioural and social challenges, and can increase the risk for long-term medical problems, including depression, substance abuse and diabetes.

SAFE SPACES: Read about the report

SAFE SPACES: Youngest children slip through cracks

SAFE SPACES: Breast feeding is first line of protection

Additionally, many young children suffer from psychological issues such as anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of the trauma they’ve experienced.

A recent study reported that 45% of Syrian children interviewed displayed symptoms of PTSD – 10 times as many as children in other parts of the world.

While the panic I felt lost in the grocery store could never compare to the experiences of these children, the memory helps me to begin to imagine the severe stress, anxiety and terror that a child undergoes when living through an emergency.

A caring, stable relationship with an adult caregiver is the best way to protect these young children from the effects of toxic stress, providing a sense of security and helping build resilience so that they can thrive despite their circumstances.

While it’s easy to presume that parents can provide this essential relationship to children in emergencies – and many do – this isn’t always the case.


Emergencies leave many children orphaned or separated from their families. Last year alone more than 100,000 unaccompanied minros applied for asylum.

Other children find themselves in the care of adults who are injured, ill or traumatised themselves, and so unable to fully provide the support that young children need. Emergencies also create additional challenges for parents and caregivers to providing quality childcare.

Surviving a crisis and navigating what comes next is extremely taxing and time-consuming for parents, and the disruption of social networks and support systems only adds to caregivers’ burden.

For these reasons, Theirworld is calling on the international community to guarantee that all babies, young children and their caregivers have access to “Safe Spaces,” where they can access everything children need to grow and thrive in emergency, conflict or vulnerable environments.

Safe Spaces can assist caregivers in supporting children’s physical and mental health and development by providing information and training on how to help children cope with trauma and stress, as well as positive discipline techniques and early childhood development.

Safe Spaces also provide a place for children to spend time in the care of trained workers, giving parents a much-needed break from childcare, when they can work or relax while assured their child is safe.

In these spaces, children can receive psychological and emotional support that helps counteract the effects of stress and participate in activities that help them work through traumatic experiences, including support groups, art projects and access to mental health professionals.

These centres give children another nurturing adult outside their homes that they can build a relationship with, so that they receive the adult support needed to counteract toxic stress and psychological trauma.

Experiences during the first year of life play a huge role in shaping a child’s future. With an estimated 16 million babies born into conflict in 2015 alone,  we cannot delay action a day longer.

We must step up to provide all children – and especially those living in conflicts and emergencies – the support they need to have the best start in life and the chance at a healthy and productive future.

More news

See all news