Sure Start: It's Never too Soon to Teach Young Children the Habits of Health

By the time they reach the age of four every child is a bundle of carefully instilled habits. Two years ago the British government commissioned a report How to Prevent Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults. Its main finding was that “the life chances of children are determined probably by the age of three and certainly by five.” This applies to obesity and well as poverty. Adults frequently excuse their behaviour by saying that they’re creatures of habits. This overlooks the fact that they themselves were originally the creators of those habits. That was the point I made in The Habits of Health, a book I wrote nearly forty years ago, at a time when parents were being actively encouraged to stuff their children with calorie rich foods. “You cannot overfeed a young baby” was the advice given then in many infant-care manuals. Winston Churchill followed this instruction, and tells in his memoirs how delighted he was when his only son Randolph tucked into his food with relish. ‘At his age greediness and even swinishness at table are virtues,” he wrote. Children as young as three and four can pick up these faulty eating habits, which is why 80 per cent of overweight children go on to be overweight adults As the Jesuits say: ‘Give me a child for his first seven years and I’ll give you the man’

UNICEF claims that Britain has the lowest level of childhood well being in the entire developed world. This it blames on the fact that UK youngsters spend relatively little time engaged in vigorous outdoor activities. Instead they pass a high percentage of their leisure time watching TV, sending text messages and playing computer games. A survey carried out in 1995 by Barnados, the children’s charity, revealed that fully three-quarters of parents abetted this unhealthy practice because they thought that nowadays it was unsafe for youngsters to play outdoors. They clearly don’t realise that obesity today is a far greater risk than being molested by a paedophile or knocked down by a car. Recent studies show how vital it is to tackle obesity at the earliest possible age. Researchers at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm followed a group of 643 obese children aged between six and 16, who were helped to undertake a programme of healthy life style change. At the end of the three year study period it was found that whereas 44 per cent of the six to nine year olds enjoyed a significant reduction in their bulk, this didn’t apply to the children who were over ten, who showed no significantly loss in weight whatsoever. It seemed that they had left it too late to modify the unhealthy habits they’d grooved during their formative years. These results were published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, and were accompanied by an editorial which concluded: ‘More and more evidence points to early childhood as a practical time for preventing in young children an obesity trajectory that is hard to alter by the time they enter middle school.’ The main strategies mentioned in the editorial to address this problem were to get children to cut down their intake of sugar-sweetened drinks, replacing them with snacks of fruit and vegetables; encouraging them to spend less time sitting in front of computers and TV screens, getting more good quality sleep, and spending at least an hour a day taking part in physical activities. Adopting these simple habits will help to curb the growing scourge of obesity in young children, which has more than trebled in the past thirty years, making it

highly likely that youngsters today won’t live as long as their parents. Any child who is obese at ten, stands a high risk of being obese at 25, and this trebles their risk of suffering a premature death.

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