The UK is lagging behind other high income countries on breastfeeding and obesity rates, a report looking health indicators for young children has warned.
Results of the first international study comparing 16 health and wellbeing indicators for young children in the UK with those in 14 other countries, including the US, New Zealand and Canada, has found that the UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with just 34% of babies receiving any breast milk at six months, compared with a high of 62% in Sweden.
The report also states that there are ‘considerably more’ children and young people in the UK that are overweight or obese, compared to the average among other high-income countries. In 2016/17, nearly a quarter of children in reception were obese or overweight.
Author Dr Ronny Cheung, a consultant paediatrician at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, said the findings should ‘set alarm bells ringing’ about the effects of cutting public health and early years care’.
The report, published by the Nuffield Trust and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), found that while the UK is doing well in nine areas, including incidence of congenital heart disease, some health outcomes for children in the UK have deteriorated. Others, such as infant mortality and immunisation rates, have stalled.
Dr Cheung claimed that the report shows that the UK is now falling behind other countries in some health outcomes.
He said: ‘In some areas, notably in childhood mortality, we can see that where we once led the field, our rates of improvement have slowed down to the extent that we have among the worst outcomes for comparable countries.
‘This research has an unequivocal message – we must do much better for our children and young people.’
He added: ‘The recent changes to the UK’s trajectory on life expectancy, premature deaths and immunisation should set alarm bells ringing for policymakers about the effects of cuts to public health and early years services.’
A girl born in the UK in 2015 can expect to live to nearly 83 – the lowest of all European countries in the study – while a boy’s life expectancy is 79.
The rates of deaths for babies under a year old and tiny babies younger than 28 days have plateaued since 2013, and the number of stillbirths is falling more slowly than other European countries, with 51% still unexplained.
Dr Russell Viner, president of the RCPCH, claimed it was a ‘failure of the system’ that child health gets such little political attention.
He said: ‘Investing in child health makes both moral and economic sense – for every £1 you put in, you get an average of £10 back in terms of future productivity.
‘We want to see the UK Government develop a comprehensive cross-departmental child health strategy, which includes a ‘health in all policies’ approach to policy making. It’s also crucial that some of the biggest threats to child health are tackled boldly; for example tighter restrictions on junk food advertising to tackle obesity, the reinstatement of child poverty reduction targets and crucially the reversal of damaging public health cuts.’