Young children who experience toxic stress are at high risk for a number of health outcomes in adulthood, including cardiovascular disease, cancers, asthma, and depression. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recently called on pediatricians, informed by research from molecular biology, genomics, immunology, and neuroscience, to become leaders in science-based strategies to build strong foundations for children’s life-long health. In this report, we provide an overview of the science of toxic stress. We summarize the development of the neuroendocrine-immune network, how its function is altered by early life adversity, and how these alterations then increase vulnerability to disease. The fact that early environments shape and calibrate the functioning of biological systems very early in life is both a cautionary tale about overlooking critical periods in development and reason for optimism about the promise of intervention. Even in the most extreme cases of adversity, well-timed changes to children’s environments can improve outcomes. Pediatricians are in a unique position to contribute to the public discourse on health and social welfare by explaining how factors that seem distal to child health may be the key to some of the most intractable public health problems of our generation. We consider the challenges and opportunities for preventing toxic stress in the context of contemporary pediatric practice.

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