Parents ‘in the dark’ as child nutrition advice isn’t getting through

 - Survey of 1,800 mums reveals over half feel advice on weaning is confusing and contradictory

- Three quarters of parents say they were never informed of government recommendations on vitamin supplements for babies and toddlers

- Four times as many mothers would visit online parenting clubs and forums over government websites 

Child nutrition advice should be displayed on supermarket shelves and online parenting forums to make it more accessible to parents, according to a Demos report.

Clearer information is necessary as a survey of over 1,800 mothers reveals many are ‘in the dark’ about healthy eating for pre-school children.

The report, titled For Starters, found more than half (54%) felt information they received on weaning to be confusing or contradictory.

In focus groups parents said health professionals and food packaging gave contradictory messages about the age at which a baby can start eating solid foods. Confusion amongst parents is unsurprising as current Government guidance says babies should not start eating solid food until ‘about six months’ while many baby food jars are labelled ‘from 4 months plus’.

Half of the mothers surveyed were also unsure about correct portion sizes for their babies and toddlers as they are growing up. This has clear implications for rates of childhood obesity in the UK. Figures from the National Child Measurement Programme show approximately a tenth of 4-5 year olds are currently obese. For 10-11 year olds the figure rises to almost 1 in 5. 

A staggering three quarters (73%) of mothers also revealed they had never been advised to give a vitamin supplement to their baby or toddler, despite it being an official government recommendation that babies aged 6 months plus should have vitamin drops with vitamins A, C and D.

Recent medical research warns of a resurgence in rickets and other vitamin D deficiency diseases among young children in the UK, highlighting the importance that parents be made aware of this advice.

This evidence of anxiety among parents and gaps in their knowledge of babies’ and toddlers’ nutritional needs highlights the need to strengthen government public health campaigns such as Start4Life, which are specifically targeted at parents of young children.

Four times as many mums said they would go first to an online parenting forum rather than an official government website for advice on how to feed their children (16% vs 4%). This leads Demos to call for government to actively publicise child nutritional advice through trusted channels that fit into parents’ daily lives, such as internet forums and supermarket aisles.

The report goes on to recommend that:

- The government should embed early childhood nutrition indicators in key developmental checks and frameworks measuring child poverty and health inequalities.

- The Department of Health should conduct a national public health campaign to inform parents of the risk of vitamin D deficiency and the benefits of vitamin supplementation for mothers, infants and toddlers.

- Health and wellbeing boards should have a statutory duty to commission services to give parents access to information and support with breastfeeding, introducing solid foods and toddler nutrition.

- The Department of Health should also refresh its Start4Life and Change4Life strategies to develop clear messages on healthy eating for the toddler age group.

The Bounty ‘Word of Mum’ survey, conducted for Demos, also found:

- Many parents are anxious about feeding their baby or toddler and would like more advice and support from professionals. 1 in 8 mothers responding to the survey were unsure about what is healthy for their baby or toddler to eat. A third also said they had not received enough information and advice on toddler nutrition.

- Over a third (36%) of mothers felt they didn’t have time to provide the foods they would like to for their baby or toddler, whilst 28% agreed that they could not always afford the foods they would like.

- Younger mothers were particularly likely to be unaware of government advice on subjects such as toddlers’ need for full-fat dairy products (20% of mothers aged 16–24), the benefits of eating oily fish for young children (a third of mothers aged 16–24) and the risk of tooth decay posed by fruit juice (almost 2 in 5 mothers aged 16–24).

Regular eating and behaviour

As part of the Demos study, researchers analysed the Millennium Cohort Study, which includes 15,000 UK families, to see how eating habits in the early years affected behavioural development and cognitive attainment in later childhood.

This analysis showed that children who had regular mealtimes at age 3 were 88% more likely to have top scores for emotional and social development at age 7 than children who did not eat regularly.

Children who had regular mealtimes at 9 months, 3 years or 5 years were in each case more likely to have top test scores in reading and maths at age 7, underlining the importance of regular mealtimes to children’s educational achievement and subsequent social mobility.

Louise Bazalgette, author of the report, said: 

“This research shows that important public health messages about children’s nutrition just aren’t reaching enough parents. It paints a worrying picture of mums who are anxious about a lack of advice and also conflicting advice when it comes to feeding their baby or toddler healthily. We spoke to some parents who were confused about whether they should trust what they read on a food packet, or what their health visitor said.”

“While the Government has in recent years has increased its focus on encouraging breastfeeding and providing good nutrition in school and nurseries, too many children are still not getting the nutrition they need at home. This has long-term consequences for their future health, development and attainment.”

“People often raise concerns about the ‘nanny state’, but this research shows that more Government advice and support in this area would be welcome. Parents are crying out for clear and consistent advice on breastfeeding, weaning and healthy eating for toddlers.”

Roger Clarke, Director General of the British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA) said: 

“Balanced, evidence-based, clear and accessible information on infant nutrition is essential for improving standards and outcomes, and for parents to make the best possible choices for their children.”

“BSNA is pleased that this research will add to the body of evidence assisting policy makers in developing the right tools and methods for ensuring that this happens in a timely fashion. Parents should feel confident that they have the full facts at their disposal when deciding how best to feed their children.”  

NOTES TO EDITORS

The Millennium Cohort Study is a longitudinal cohort study of approximately 15,000 families living in the UK initiated in 2000.

Demos also carried out in depth interviews with 25 families at four separate research workshops in Romford, Wigan, Gateshead and Knowsley.

The Bounty Word of Mum survey involved over 1800 mothers across the UK. For a full methodology see the executive summary of the report.

The report was supported by BSNA and Bounty. For Starters will be published on Tuesday December 4.

About BSNA

The British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA) represents manufacturers of infant milks and foods who are dedicated to delivering the best nutrition for babies and toddlers.  Our members are committed to the highest safety standards and continued research to meet the needs of babies and toddlers now and in the future.

Our role is to work with government, regulating bodies and healthcare professionals in the manufacturing and supply of milks and foods, and to provide balanced, evidence-based information so that parents and carers can make informed nutritional choices for their babies and toddlers.

BSNA member companies include Pfizer, Nestle, Danone and Mead Johnson.

About Bounty

Bounty (www.bounty.com) is the UK’s best – loved parenting club, providing information, support and products for young families throughout the four key-life stages: pre-birth, birth, toddlers and pre-school.

Bounty has 2.5 million members and over 50,000 new members joining every month,www.bounty.com is the UK’s favourite parenting website and the largest online meeting point for expectant and new mums with over 2 million unique users per month.

The report’s author, Louise Bazalgette, is available for interview or further comment. To arrange an interview please contact Rob Macpherson.

MEDIA CONTACT
Rob Macpherson
rob.macpherson@demos.co.uk 
020 7367 6325
(out of hours: 07554 424 137)