Hesperian Health Guides

HIV affects a child’s development and abilities

Every day 20,000 people visit the HealthWiki for lifesaving health information. A gift of just $5 helps make this possible!

Make a giftMake a gift to support this essential health information people depend on.

HealthWiki > Helping Children Live with HIV > Chapter 3: How young children develop > HIV affects a child’s development and abilities

HIV Ch3 Page 24-1.png

Illness and malnutrition affect children with HIV more severely, causing low weight, slow growth, weakness, and sometimes disabilities, including damage to a child’s brain. Children weakened by illness may not play as much with other children. This can slow their development even more.

When HIV stigma isolates children, they may attend school less regularly and have fewer opportunities to play and talk with adults and other children. Caregivers may be sickly and lack time or energy to interact with their children. These all hinder a child’s social, emotional, and language development.

Sometimes HIV infects a child’s brain and nervous system, causing disabilities in the child’s body control (such as turning over or walking), hearing ability, language learning, and ability to remember and learn. A child who starts treatment for HIV early in life can avoid many of these problems, and grow and develop much like other children. Even if children have disabilities, as many do, with or without HIV, it does not need to stop their development.

By helping them develop the abilities they do have, many children will catch up in their development or learn how to cope with their limitations. What they need is people to love, care for, and believe in them.

A child with a physical disability may also have HIV or be affected by HIV. It can be easy to miss this if you focus only on their HIV or only on their disability.

What to do when a child has a disability or develops slowly

All children have the same basic needs—love, enough good food, shelter, and the chance to explore the world around them. Children with a physical disability such as blindness, deafness, or body control problems need more help learning. Because they lack certain physical abilities or one of their senses, it is more difficult for them to explore and understand their world.

a man speaking to a child pouring water into a cup
When the water touches your finger, stop pouring.

For example, when a child can see, she naturally reaches for and explores people and objects around her. And she can see what people are talking about, which helps her learn to communicate. A child who has problems seeing gets less of this stimulation naturally. So she may not develop as quickly or as fully. Her family members need to help her learn to use her other senses, especially touch and hearing. If they do, she will keep developing as well as other children.

a woman signing to a child
Time to sleep.
Yes, you!

A child who is born deaf or who loses the ability to hear as a baby will have difficulty understanding what people say and learning to speak. Because we think in words, language is needed for our minds to develop fully. A child who does not hear well learns fewer words and develops more slowly. But if she is taught to communicate through sign language at the age when other children learn to speak, her mind will have the language it needs to develop well.

HIV Ch3 Page 25-2.png
Simple homemade parallel bars can help a child with weak legs or poor balance begin to walk.

Children who cannot move well or control their bodies need help to see what is going on around them, do as much as they can, and be part of family life. This helps them learn to communicate, understand, and gain whatever body movements and control are possible for them. When children are given this kind of support, many will develop their abilities to communicate and think as well as children without disability.

When a child’s development seems to lag behind that of others her age, or if she is very slow to learn, first make sure she is getting enough to eat and is treated for any serious health problems, including HIV. These children also need the same kinds of stimulation that any child needs — talking to them, music, games, movement. But they often need more time and help to learn. You may need to show or help them many times before they learn how to do something, or repeat explanations and instructions over and over to help them learn.

To teach a child to feed herself by bringing things to her mouth:
HIV Ch3 Page 25-3.png
HIV Ch3 Page 25-4.png
HIV Ch3 Page 25-5.png
Help her put her finger in a food she likes, then guide her to put her finger in her mouth. After she learns to do this, let her do it by herself.

HIV Ch3 Page 26-1.png
Think more about a child’s abilities and how to build on them, and not so much about his disabilities.

Children who take medicines early to treat their HIV will probably catch up in their development, especially if they are given support and stimulation for learning. For some children, there may be some lasting disability, either physical or mental. Observe your child closely as he grows and develops, and see if you can tell what areas are his strongest. Then you can build on those abilities, to help him develop as much and in as many areas as possible.

For more about helping children with disabilities, see Helping Children Who Are Blind, Helping Children Who Are Deaf, and Disabled Village Children, all from Hesperian.

Guidelines for helping all children learn

How you relate to a child as he learns makes a big difference in how fast and how well he learns, and how interested and willing he will be to keep learning. Here are some simple ways to support a child:

a man speaking to a child
Rub them like this.
a man speaking to a child
That’s right, put the other foot in.
  1. Praise the child often. Give the child a hug or acknowledge when he does something well. Praising success works better than scolding failure.
  2. To teach a new skill, do it yourself first and encourage the child to copy you — or ask an older brother or sister to do this. Children love to copy others, and it is a good way to teach many things, from physical activities to sounds and words.
  3. Talk a lot to your child. Say what you are doing as you work and care for her. Children listen to and begin to learn language long before they begin to speak.
  4. Let the child do as much as he can for himself. Help him only as much as is needed. This takes patience. Often we do something for the child when he has difficulty with it. But he will learn more if we help in ways that let him do as much as he can.
  5. Make learning fun. Look for ways to turn learning into play.

This page was updated:27 Nov 2019