Despite 1 in 10 children being affected by armed conflicts, there is limited evidence on the effects of conflicts on early childhood development (ECD), an important Sustainable Development Goals indicator. We aimed to elucidate the relationship between exposure to conflicts and ECD.
We conducted a multinational observational study using population-based data on 27 538 children 36 to 59 months old from Demographic and Health Surveys from 12 low- and middle-income countries merged with prospective data on conflicts from Uppsala Conflict Data Program. We estimated the association between 1 to 5 consecutive years of exposure to conflicts within 50 km and ECD after inverse probability of treatment weighting. Mediators of the relationship between conflicts and ECD were identified. We also estimated the association between conflicts and individual domains of ECD.
Exposure to conflicts was associated with a 5.9% decrease (95% confidence interval −7.5% to −4.3%) in the probability of a child being developmentally on track from the first year of exposure. This was compounded after the second year, with 5 consecutive years of exposure associated with a 10.4% decrease in the probability of a child being developmentally on track (95% confidence interval −13.7% to −7.2%). A lack of access to early childhood education was a significant mediator into the fifth year of exposure. Among individual ECD domains, socioemotional development was disproportionately impaired.
Exposure to nearby conflicts is associated with an increased probability of delayed ECD, especially with chronic exposure. Children in affected areas should be provided psychosocial support and early childhood education from an early stage.