The Power of a Deep Conversation: How We Fend Off Child Obesity

19 December 2019

June O'Sullivan, December 19 2019

Everyone knows that child obesity is complex and fixing it will take collaboration, creativity and applying what we know works. We know it is preventable, but that action must happen from conception. It’s almost too late by the time a child has reached five years. However, like it or not we still operate in silos and bunkers, and too often we are slow to leave our professional egos at the door.

As CEO and creator of the UK's leading childcare charity and social enterprise; I am dedicated to the care and education of nearly 5000 children under five. London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) aims to build children’s social and cultural capital so that they develop a love of learning and confidence in their place in the world. Through my work, I truly feel a responsibility to advocate for a healthy future of all children across London.
As a member of the Taskforce, I am keen to learn from others and share great ideas so it can be replicated.  I was keen to learn from those who have made some systemic shifts such as Lambeth and Leeds. All too often our default response to problems is to provide more information. The taskforce agreed there is a landfill of information, and we worry that some of it can be quite manipulative. We also agree that interventions must be evidenced based, and it is crucial that this evidence is used to design a set of interventions across a child’s life, from babyhood to adulthood. The real question/challenge is whether it reaches the right people, in a way that helps change behaviour.
 
One popular and successful solution LEYF has seen, is the training of as many people as possible with the knowledge and understanding of healthy nutritious food. This is done through a range of people who meet families regularly; including nursery staff, nursery chefs, health professionals, teachers, childminders or volunteers.  Using daily opportunities, through personal relationships, to have casual informed conversations and give permission to love good food is the best way to sensitively take account of the lived experience of families.
Understanding the many layers within a community and using food positively as the basis of events and conversations is a welcomed way of engaging people. Back in July, LEYF launched the Early Years Chefs Academy. When I considered the food, we provided our children in nurseries, it became clear that there was a lack of guidance around what to buy and how to cook it. The Early Years Chef Academy ensures that every chef and young apprentices cooking for children in our nurseries, would be supported to achieve the Level 2 Diploma in Food Procurement and Cooking for Early Years. This qualification recognises the important role that chefs play beyond simply cooking; they influence the food choices of children, educate parents and inspire the next generation to love healthy food.
 
This academy will impact children’s food consumption in nurseries across the country; but more than this it provides another opportunity to engage with families around what they eat and another chance to talk and build relationships. There are other great initiatives across London that compliment this work such as community cooking; involving grandparents and older people or borrowing schemes that allow families to borrow equipment to cook with at home - It’s hard to make soup if you haven’t got a blender! 
 
Although diet is the biggest issue, exercise has a part to play. The 2020 WHO guidance will be out soon with up to date guidance and research on exercise, sedentary lifestyle and sleep.  Exercise is good for us whether its walking, cycling, gardening or yoga.
From my experience, you should never underestimate a child’s pester power, even when it comes to exercise. We know that many companies use toys and cartoon characters to connect with children; and with great success.  This can also work in reverse.  A small child can also change positive attitudes to healthy food and exercise and can drive family behaviour. Bikeworks  noted that their family bicycle training was much more successful than simply training the children as it allowed children to lead the way for parents. Bigger societal benefits emerge when children pull their parents out to play, opening up cycling in parks brings people into new community spaces and reduces fear about the area being unsafe.
 
Another regular question discussed within the Taskforce was whether we should focus on weight management, including weighing children in nurseries from the age of two. This was raised because of the perceived pressure on parents, especially new mothers to “feed your child”.  The process of weighing, although beneficial in some cases, is marred by negative associations and is dependent on other variables such as emotional attitudes, cultural behaviours, misinformation and lack of confident and well-trained staff. However, the view remains that if conducted by a well-informed and appropriated trained person it could provide another opportunity to talk about healthy weight in a conversational and reassuring way.

Finally, no conversation about obesity is ever held without mentioning breastfeeding.  The first ten days for breastfeeding is critical and Mums who are supported by their family are more likely to continue. The anxiety related to the introduction of solids in a highly contested space as well as unhelpful marketing of products such as “top up” milk which leaves many new parents unconfident. Guidance from both Lambeth and Leeds was that barriers to breast feeding needs continual review to respond to constantly/ever changing attitudes.

Connecting with each other and finding ways to share and replicate ideas that work is the way forward.  It’s the basis of our Ambitions. We cannot tackle child obesity alone.  It’s not an individual problem but a broader societal one. So, we need to create a road map of change that used every member of our community to help eradicate child obesity.

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