Yet another major report published this month highlights the parlous state of children’s health and wellbeing in the United Kingdom. The recent ‘State of Child Health Report 2017′ published by the Royal College of Paediatric & Child Health (RCPCH) exposes a major problem. Prof. Neena Modi President of the RCPCH suggests that this is because children are politically a low priority. As a consequence children’s health in the UK lags behind that of most other European countries.
Does this matter? Yes, it does because children’s health and wellbeing impacts on the future economic success of the United Kingdom.
Babies’ brains develop more rapidly in the first three years of life than at any other time. Approximately 750 connections between nerve cells, (the brain’s transport system), are formed every second. These connections in the brain are formed in response to babies’ experience of the world, from the moment of conception. With consistent, responsive loving care and secure attachment the baby’s brain develops neural networks that support self regulation and empathy, while maternal stress, smoking, abuse of alcohol and drugs during pregnancy, and unresponsive or inconsistent care all have a damaging impact on future health and wellbeing. Putting things right later on is considerably more costly than preventing harm in the first place.
We now know – simple though it sounds – that it is love that makes babies’ brains grow. The loving relationship that babies have with their parents is the key predictor for optimum development and future health. These relationships are not abstract concepts to babies, but the stuff of life. The relationship with their mum and dad evolves and is sustained through all the tiny moments of interaction that happen between a baby and parents. Interactions such as ‘cooing’ to baby when changing a nappy, gentle rocking, soothing strokes, the sound of familiar voices, eye contact, are all real moments of emotional experience that build a baby’s brain and ensure future physical and mental health. Building a strong positive parent/infant relationship can’t be rushed, it needs and takes time.
In order to provide this vital responsive loving care, parents need to feel secure themselves, secure in the couple relationship, secure that they have sufficient income, opportunity and capacity to provide a safe ‘home’, support from health and education professionals and support and recognition in the tax system for this vital caring role.
Governments of all political persuasions over past decades have made tokenistic gestures rather than implementing a coordinated effective strategy to improve children’s health. There have been targets to increase rates of breastfeeding, targets to reduce obesity in children and targets to reduce smoking during pregnancy. So why does this latest study show that the UK still has a low rate of breast feeding, one in five children overweight or obese when starting primary school, high rates of smoking during pregnancy – an important factor in the health of babies and higher than in many other European countries – and a growing number of children suffering mental health problems. There has been little improvement in these figures over the past 10 years.
The problem isn’t that there is insufficient evidence about children’s health it is because government initiatives of many years have been piecemeal and short term. There has not been the political will to embark on what is required, a radical step change, a long term holistic strategy across government, driven by an informed determination to secure a sustained improvement in children’s health and wellbeing.
Theresa May said recently, ‘the social and cultural unions represented by families….. are the things that define us and make us strong.’ Research supports her in this view. So whilst negotiations for leaving the EU and Britain’s relationship with the new President of the United States, Donald Trump, are understandably high on Theresa May’s agenda at the moment, if she is genuine in her aspiration for the UK economy and ‘closing the gap’ between the ‘haves’ and ‘the have nots’, she must act on the indisputable link between children’s physical, mental and emotional health and our future economic security.