THE BLOG

Without Improving Early Years Support Our Children Cannot Be The Healthiest In The World

02/08/2017 16:28
Chris J Ratcliffe via Getty Images

"Breast milk makes the world healthier, smarter, and more equal". So concluded a major study of breastfeeding by the world-renowned medical journal The Lancet in January of last year.

This call to action should be at the centre of our thoughts during World Breastfeeding Week.

Experts agree that mothers should be encouraged and supported to breastfeed. And yet breastfeeding rates in the UK are among the lowest in the world: just 44% of mothers in England were recorded as breastfeeding at their 6-8 week health visitor review in 2014/15.

And just a third of babies receive breast milk at the age of six months. This compares with 49% in the United States and 71% in Norway.

As Shadow Health Secretary, I agree with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health's (RCPCH) verdict that our breastfeeding record leaves 'little to celebrate'.

At the very heart of my ambition to make child health and wellbeing a national priority is my determination to drastically improve early years support for children and parents, and a national breastfeeding programme must be at the heart of this strategy.

We know breast milk defends babies against infections and dental problems, and helps protect them against becoming overweight and obese in later life. Breastfeeding has even been shown to play a significant role in fostering brain development and cognitive capacity in young children.

Plus there are health benefits to mothers: studies show lower rates of breast and ovarian cancer in women who breastfeed.

UNICEF's research reveals that even moderate increases in breastfeeding could save the NHS up to £40million a year through fewer General Practitioner consultations and hospital admissions.

Yet there is disturbing variation across the country, with particularly low rates among disadvantaged socio-economic groups. Data from the 2010 Infant Feeding Survey showed that 46% of mothers in the most deprived areas were breastfeeding, compared with 65% in the least deprived areas.

That's why I'll also implement the Royal College's recommendation that Public Health England develops a national strategy to change negative societal attitudes to breastfeeding and reduce health inequalities across the country.

And I agree that the Government must do more to ensure employers support breastfeeding, for example through feeding breaks and providing sufficient facilities for breastfeeding in the workplace.

And crucially, Labour will reinstate the UK-wide Infant Feeding Survey, which the Tories scrapped in 2015, to ensure reliable, comparable data on breastfeeding is recorded and readily available.

We are committed to this agenda because we know that what a child experiences in its early years has a profound effect on the rest of its life. Therefore, alongside breastfeeding, we must improve immunisation rates, tackle the woeful state of oral health and eradicate the unacceptably high rates of infant mortality.

Vaccinations in early childhood protect children against serious and potentially fatal diseases. Experts agree that without a sustained high rate of population cover, diseases are at risk of returning.

However, the latest data from 2015 shows that the vaccination rate in England for two doses of the Measles, Mumps and Rubella Vaccine by age five was just 88.2%. This is well below the World Health Organisation target of 95%.

Immunisation rates are not improving and children in England are not being protected as well as their European counterparts.

That's why Labour will implement a public campaign to raise awareness of the importance of vaccination and address vaccine hesitancy. We will establish an effective vaccination programme aimed at returning vaccination rates to 95%. This will also help provide protection to unimmunised infants and children through herd immunity.

Our children's teeth are also in need of urgent action too.

Shockingly, tooth decay is the most common reason why children aged five to nine require admission to hospital. And inequalities in tooth decay remain stark, with 5-year-olds in the most deprived areas of Lancashire almost seven times more likely to have decay than their peers in Jeremy Hunt's Surrey constituency.

This is extremely serious: tooth decay can have a significant impact on a child's general health, development, school readiness, confidence, ability to sleep, eat and socialise.

Yet most frustratingly tooth decay is almost entirely preventable through regular brushing, adequate exposure to fluoride and reducing sugar consumption.

Therefore, Labour will ensure all children in the UK receive their first check-up as soon as their first teeth come through. This will make a substantial difference alongside timely access to dental services for preventative advice and early diagnosis of dental caries, with targeted access for vulnerable groups.

At the most extreme end too many of our infants are dying needlessly.

Infant mortality rates across the United Kingdom have declined markedly over the past 40 years. The UK currently ranks 15 out of 19 Western European countries on infant mortality, and rates are more than twice as high in the lowest socio-economic groups in our society compared with the richest.

We know that socioeconomic status is strongly associated with infant mortality, along with poor maternal nutrition. That's why Labour will ensure public health services are properly funded in order to maximise health during pre-conception and pregnancy, including smoking cessation programmes and promoting healthy weight in women of childbearing age.

The next Labour Government will give our children the best possible start in life. That process starts right from birth and improving early years support is a critical start.

To improve the health and wellbeing of every child has long been part of my Party's mission. In the historic Labour manifesto of 1945 we stated: "Labour will work specially for the care of Britain's mothers and their children- children's allowances and school medical and feeding services, better maternity and child welfare services."

The next Labour government will have as its mission making child health a national priority. It's what every child deserves.

Jon Ashworth is the Shadow Health Secretary and Labour MP for Leicester South

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