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Educating parents to see there's a problem



This week, I was sent  the Key Findings of The EarlyBird Diabetes Research Study. They made for very disturbing reading. EarlyBird is a twelve year programme examining the health and lifestyle of a cohort of 300 normal healthy children. It aims to help parents and teachers understand what they can do to prevent children falling prey to the current epidemic of diabetes and heart disease.

My attention was captured by the email because of something I recently observed in our local park one sunny day. There’s a kiosk in the park that sells ice-cream, fizzy drinks and tea. It only opens when the weather is very good and local people will say to each other, ‘I see they’re open today   –  we’re in for a hot spell!’ There was a long queue of families waiting to be served among whom were a mum, dad and two boys, the younger around 6. This child was distressingly fat; his belly overhung his shorts and his upper body had entirely lost the normal firm contours of a young child. Adults glanced at him and looked away again. It was heart-breaking to see. What was at least as distressing as the child’s weight was the fact that the mother drew attention to her son by laughing at his tummy – commenting that he would need extra ice-cream to ‘keep him going’. I really couldn’t work out whether she genuinely found cause for amusement in her son’s obesity, whether she was embarrassed and therefore, making a joke of it, or whether she simply didn’t have a problem with it at all.

Maybe it was the last explanation. The EarlyBird study notes that ‘today’s parents are oblivious of their children’s weight’. It suggests that mothers and fathers are the key people in halting the obesity epidemic, but that they will have little impact unless educated ‘to acknowledge the problem’.

Children gain excessive weight before they come to school so focusing attention on the number of hours timetabled for PE each week, on access to sports fields and on improving school meals, while all very important, is not going to solve the problem of children whose obesity started long before they arrived at the primary school gates.  

EarlyBird argues that public health initiatives must focus on the Very Early Years if we are to be effective in tackling obesity. The study adds to the enormous body of evidence that is shouting at us to start educating mums and dads on day 1 of the critical 1001 days, that is, during pregnancy, if we are to make a difference to the health of our children. If we don’t do something, we are going to have to face the very real possibility that a substantial number of today’s new parents will outlive their offspring. When you go to vote next Thursday, it’s perhaps worth thinking about which party has the clearest manifesto for Very Early Years intervention. As a society, we’re still spending our hard-earned money far too late in our children’s lives to make a difference to their health and happiness.

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