Every child needs and deserves the right nutrition to grow and thrive. You wouldn't think that childhood malnutrition exists in the UK today. We tend to believe it's a developing world problem, but the latest figures from the National Child Measurement Programme and the Children's Nutrition Survey paint a different picture:
- Over 11,000 children are underweight in this country
- Malnutrition related hospital admissions for under 16s has increased in the past 10 years
- 11% of hospitalised infants and children are malnourished and higher rates are often seen in those with underlying medical conditions
- 5% of infants and preschool children suffer from faltering growth
Faltering growth is a term used by healthcare professionals for infants and children to describe slower weight gain than expected for their age and gender; it's usually the result of poor nutrition.
Why are children malnourished in the UK today?
Experts believe the main driver of childhood malnutrition is poor diets driven by poverty, with 600,000 children living in London below the breadline, many of whom will not be getting a healthy diet. The other reason is poor appetite in times of illness, feeding difficulties or restricted diets.
Specific medical conditions such as digestive diseases can impact the way nutrients are absorbed and utilised by the body. Other conditions like congenital heart disease or cystic fibrosis can increase nutritional needs putting these children at risk if additional nutrition is not provided. A new study also shows widespread stunting in children with multiple food allergies despite being under medical care.
Malnutrition is costly
We cannot afford to do nothing:
- 1 in 3 children in the developed world is stunted because of chronic malnutrition and may suffer from slow cognitive development
- Malnutrition increases the risk of childhood infections which can further delay growth and brain development. These issues can have a long-term impact on a child's health and socioeconomic well-being
- Sick children admitted to hospital with, or at risk of malnutrition take longer to recover from their illness, which means longer hospital stays and higher associated costs
- The average cost to the NHS of admitting a child with faltering growth is nearly £3,000
It's time to act
A recent report from the Patients Association, supported by Abbott, highlights that undernutrition in children is getting worse and calls for a more joined up approach for detecting and treating it. A 6-month project looked at malnutrition in the under 5s in Birmingham, Tower Hamlets, Cornwall and Bradford, covering both urban and rural localities.
The findings reveal examples of positive efforts in working with children and families across agencies, particularly by public health teams, community and acute health staff; but many are overstretched and unable to meet demand for the types of information and guidance that people need. The report recommends that:
- Awareness of undernutrition is raised among both professionals and the public
- New and existing training and guidance for professionals include the identification and treatment of under-nutrition
- National guidance and a care pathway are developed specifically for undernutrition
These recommendations were considered by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) which recently published their guideline on faltering growth; it calls for improved recognition, assessment and monitoring of the condition in infants and children.
The guideline also includes strategies to increase nutritional intake and how to manage feeding and eating behaviours. Oral nutritional supplements for the management of malnutrition have a place, including when feeding behavioural techniques have failed, or the child is refusing to eat. The child's dietitian is best placed to manage this nutritional care.
How do we solve the problem?
We need to step up and a joined up, multisector approach will go a long way to ensuring that children in the UK have access to the nutrition they need to grow and develop so they can lead a fun-filled life.