The ‘first three years’ movement and the infant brain: a review of critiques

Jan Macvarish*, Ellie Lee, Pam Lowe

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article reviews a particular aspect of the critique of the increasing focus on the brain and neuroscience; what has been termed by some, 'neuromania'. It engages with the growing literature produced in response to the 'first three years' movement: an alliance of child welfare advocates and politicians that draws on the authority of neuroscience to argue that social problems such as inequality, poverty, educational underachievement, violence and mental illness are best addressed through 'early intervention' programmes to protect or enhance emotional and cognitive aspects of children's brain development. The movement began in the United States in the early 1990s and has become increasingly vocal and influential since then, achieving international legitimacy in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the UK and elsewhere. The movement, and the brain-based culture of expert-led parent training that has grown with it, has been criticised for claiming scientific authority whilst taking a cavalier approach to scientific method and evidence; for being overly deterministic about the early years of life; for focusing attention on individual parental failings rather than societal or structural problems, for adding to the expanding anxieties of parents and strengthening the intensification of parenting and, ultimately, for redefining the parent-child relationship in biologised, instrumental and dehumanised terms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)792-804
Number of pages13
JournalSociology compass
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2014


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