What It's Like to Have An Overweight Child

There is no question in my mind that the government's strategy doesn't go nearly far enough but it also seems to assume that parents have no interest in making changes for their children's health and it needs to be society that forces change upon them.

Last week the government launched its childhood obesity strategy. Plenty of people have offered their opinions on it but having had a child with weight problems it's all a bit more personal for me and has got me thinking about our journey.

At 9lb 7oz my son was a big baby, he lost no weight at all in those first few days after birth and despite being exclusively breastfed he continued to track along the 98th centile. By the time he was two I was concerned. I read a statistic in a magazine about being an overweight toddler increasing the likelihood of obesity in later life so I decided to speak to the health visitor. She pretty much told me I was worrying about nothing and that I shouldn't believe everything I read on the Internet. I wasn't entirely convinced but she was the professional so I accepted her word.

The NHS provide an online BMI calculator which is suitable for children over the age of three. Once my son was old enough I entered his details. While I had continued to suspect he was overweight I was horrified to discover that he was off the chart, measuring above the 99th centile and described as "very overweight" (it seems the NHS isn't keen to label a child as obese).

Obviously this discovery came with a huge amount of guilt. Was it because I gave him the wrong foods? Were his portions too big? Was he not doing enough activity? Was it because he didn't crawl as a baby, preferring to bum shuffle? Or because he didn't walk until he was 19 months?

I considered going to see the health visitor but my previous experience had put me off. I considered going to my GP but, while I was keen to educate my son about healthy eating, I didn't want to make him aware that his weight was a problem and I couldn't quite see how we could go to the GP without doing that. I contacted the government's "Change for Life" project but was told that nothing was running in my area.

I always felt I'd been careful with treats and portion sizes but once I knew there was a problem I became even more strict, I felt like I was constantly denying him. It's not until you start saying no that you realise how many sugary foods children encounter, birthday cake at a party, ice cream at the beach, biscuits at toddler group and don't even get me started on Christmas and Easter. I also tried to increase his physical activity but this proved difficult because at parks and soft play centres he preferred role play to climbing and, having been late to walk, he found it difficult to coordinate his body for activities like gymnastics and cycling.

I was terribly paranoid that other parents were judging me and would always try to let them know that we knew he was overweight and were doing something about it. They always told me that he didn't look it, at the time I thought they were just being nice.

Starting school presented it's own problems. I was keen for him to have school dinners, luckily he wasn't so keen as, while it certainly wasn't a case of chips with everything, there was a daily pudding which probably had the same calorie count as his whole lunch at home. While it's not encouraged by the school, children are allowed to bring in sweets to give out on their birthdays, 30 kids in the class means sweets after school most weeks. It also seems like everything the school does to make money involves food. Cake sales, tuck shops, sweeties as prizes at the summer fete, even the film night involved sugary drinks.

At the end of reception year all children receive a health check. It is this health check that triggers the infamous letter to be sent out to the parents of overweight children. I was desperate to avoid that letter. I considered denying them permission to weigh him but in the end I put a note on the permission form saying that we were aware that he was overweight and working to change it. It worked in that I didn't get the dreaded letter but I had hoped I might be offered some support, which I wasn't.

My son is 6 now and about to start year 2. A few months ago Facebook began showing me pictures that I'd posted last summer, while the NHS calculator had recently told me that he was now a "healthy weight", I could see the difference. The thing was, he didn't look overweight to me in those pictures, he looked chubby, babyish. It made me wonder if it was actually just, what when I was a child, would have been called puppy fat, and if he'd have lost it anyway without all of my worrying.

There is no question in my mind that the government's strategy doesn't go nearly far enough but it also seems to assume that parents have no interest in making changes for their children's health and it needs to be society that forces change upon them. For me the big area that's missing is support for parents like me who want to make changes but need help to do so.

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