Our national public health strategy should start with parents
The new Demos report published today, For Starters, presents new analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study showing that children who had regular mealtimes at age 3 were 88 per cent more likely to have good social and emotional development at age 7, as measured by the Strengths and Difficulties questionnaire. They were also more likely to have good test scores in reading and maths at age 7. These findings add to a host of existing evidence demonstrating the importance of breastfeeding and – subsequently – a healthy diet to young children’s health and development. As it is parents for the most part who make early feeding choices for their children, it is parents that policymakers most need to reach.
Therefore, it is a welcome finding that the research with parents conducted for this report - including a survey of more than 1800 mothers and four research workshops across England - suggests that many parents would welcome greater intervention in this area rather than less. The survey found that many parents are eager to receive more information and advice about feeding their young children. A fifth of mothers said they had not received enough advice on breastfeeding; more than a quarter of mothers wanted more advice on formula feeding or introducing solid food and a third wanted more information about toddler nutrition. Half of mothers also said they were unsure about appropriate portion sizes for their baby or toddler.
When we asked parents where they went to get this kind of information, friends and family members were the most popular; 33 per cent of mothers would consult these informal sources first, while 28 per cent of mothers would go to a health professional. Only 4 per cent of parents would go to a Government website, such as Start4Life or NHS Choices, as their first port-of-call when seeking nutrition advice. Four times as many said they would rather visit the website of a parenting club or forum.
However, while many parents felt that they would like more information about healthy eating for babies and toddlers, our research showed that quality and consistency of information was also very important, and in many cases the plethora of conflicting information already available to parents is causing confusion. Two out of five mothers who took part in our survey felt breastfeeding advice had been confusing or contradictory and more than half of mothers found advice on introducing solid food to be confusing or contradictory.
Parents who took part in our four research workshops also explained that they frequently felt anxious when attempting to weigh up and interpret conflicting advice about infant and toddler nutrition.
For example, a father who took part in one of our research workshops in Romford complained that the advice he was given by his health visitor about delaying weaning until 6 months was clearly contradicted by the baby food jars he used to feed his son which were marketed as suitable from four months plus. He asked the nutritionist present: ‘what do you believe: what people are telling you or the stuff that’s being sold?’
In another research workshop, four mothers aged between 17 and 20 marvelled at the discrepancies in the advice they had each received from their health visitors on this subject. In other cases parents explained that they chose to ignore health professionals’ advice because they found it too rigid, preferring to consult their mother or an online parenting forum instead.
Based on these findings, For Starters argues that improving the quality of information and support available to parents with early childhood nutrition should be a priority for Government.
It recommends that the Government refreshes its Start4Life and Change4Life strategies to ensure that parents can access clear advice on nutrition for toddlers as well as babies. It recommends that the Department of Health should work with all stakeholders (including dieticians, doctors and infant food manufacturers) to develop a consensus on guidelines on the earliest age at which parents can safely give their babies solid food. These must be evidence-based but recognise the need for flexibility, so that parents can respond to their individual babies’ needs.
It also recommends that future strategies for promoting healthy eating to parents should fit in the way that parents live their lives. This means encouraging health professionals, early education providers, online parenting forums, food brands and retailers all to take a greater role in supporting parents to make healthy choices for their young children, rather than relying on government websites.