Healthy childhood ... fit and healthy life

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As Chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on A Fit and Healthy Childhood, I was recently delighted to commend our first report to my colleagues in the House of Lords.


Baroness Floella Benjamin

Healthy Patterns for Healthy Families shows that the way we treat children today determines the society of tomorrow and if we want to build the best society we must truly 'begin
at the beginning'.

Over the past 40 years, I've been privileged to work for and with children because I believe in them. I do everything I can to ensure they are considered and receive the best for their long-term well-being. As I always say, 'childhood lasts a lifetime' and a healthy child who has been nurtured and loved will make confident choices based on strong self-esteem.

From my experience most parents believe in their children and want the very best lives for them, but they cannot be expected to shoulder all the responsibilities alone. Government must step in - with credible, cross-departmental policies, co-ordinated and driven by a minister for children at Cabinet level to ensure children are considered during the decision-making process. All decisions Government makes affect children directly and indirectly.

Mind you, whenever 'Government playing a role' is linked to 'family', critics scream 'nanny state'. But there is a world of difference between the rigidity of that phrase and the flexibility of an approach in which parents are supported in their decisions by recourse to sympathetic advice and support from professionals throughout the childcare pathway.

This should start before a baby is born and be established during the early years. An increased role for health visitors in antenatal care and post birth, up to and including the weaning period, increases the well-being of mother and baby.

Information that Government should disseminate about breastfeeding, the risks associated with smoking in pregnancy and antenatal weight gain can be personally conveyed. Eating well is not the same as 'eating for two' and referrals to evidence-based sympathetic weight-loss groups can help mothers to protect their and their baby's health and establish virtuous patterns of nutrition for the wider family.

During the early years, clear information and professional service co-ordination can go a long way to decrease feelings of isolation and confusion and build parental confidence.

Government should now recognise this developmental stage as unique in its own right and not just a 'curtain-raiser' for school days. This requires professional accreditation for early years practitioners, including a new Level 3 award of Early Years Educator and new graduate award of Early Years Teacher (0-5 years).

What makes a good Early Years experience?

Firstly, we must modify what is understood by 'play', lessening a tendency to offer a wealth of sedentary, computer-based pursuits and encouraging children to develop their imaginations and creative thinking. The Department for Education should reinstate the importance of free play in establishing a healthy level of physical activity in young children. Children will be physically fitter and also develop skills in decision-making, risk-evaluation, leadership and teamwork.

Evidence shows that good early nutrition is the foundation of a healthy adult life. So I would encourage the Department of Health to work with 'early life' brands and retailers trusted by parents as well as online forums, health and well-being boards, children's centres and nurseries to offer consistent advice about good nutrition to families.

Health and well-being boards are ideally placed to make a difference locally and should have statutory powers to commission the very best local services to give advice on breastfeeding, the introduction of solid foods and toddler feeding. The emphasis should be to support and encourage, promoting good practice and establishing community hubs of expertise that can provide help and support.

Children are our future. Therefore, I believe that governments of all political persuasions have a foremost duty to make sure that 'the future' is a good one. Our first report contains many policy recommendations designed to achieve that aim and intended to assist whichever political party or parties form a government next year. The enthusiasm for this important agenda is growing.

But good ideas will die unheard unless there is the will to co-ordinate and drive them. That is why we call, above all, for a minister for children at Cabinet level, to make them happen. For the children of today and the adults of tomorrow, I ask our future government to make that aspiration a reality in 2015.

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