Health Eating and Nutrition in the Really Young – starting the HENRY programme with evidence in mind

Richard Newson, Media and Communications Manager at the National Children’s Bureau, reflects on the evidence underpinning a healthy eating and nutrition programme aimed at Blackpool families.

Healthy eating is a good idea for everyone but particularly valuable for very young children’s growth and development.

As a new scheme to promote good early nutrition gets underway in Blackpool, a significant amount of attention has been paid to the research evidence that both supports this kind of work generally, and that provides specific information on the particular health challenges faced by local children.

The evidence is the foundation for the work.

This was the message that came across loud and clear at a presentation at Blackpool’s Better Start’s recent annual conference.

The programme team told delegates how they have commissioned HENRY to begin work in Blackpool from early in 2021. HENRY is already working in other A Better Start partnership areas in Bradford, Lambeth and Southend.

For those who haven’t come across the scheme, HENRY is an evidence-based, multi-layered approach to improving outcomes in nutrition, feeding and introducing a baby to solid food. HENRY provides a wide range of support for families underpinned by the belief that behaviour change is best achieved by helping parents gain the confidence, knowledge and skills they need for the family to adopt a healthier, happier lifestyle.

As Jo Medd, the National Family Support Manager at HENRY said: ‘We work with the whole family in a partnership approach, giving support rather than advice.’ With this in mind, the programme works hard to strike a balance between supporting families with their current feeding choices, and avoiding the promotion of bottle feeding.

So, what were the facts that prompted Blackpool to introduce HENRY?

For a start, there is abundant evidence that nutrition during the first months and years of life has implications the rest of our lives. Early feeding preferences lay the foundation for our eating habits in subsequent years.

90% of children who are obese at age three will have excess weight as teenagers, leaving them at increased risks of numerous lifelong health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, types of cancer, and stroke, as well as psychological problems like depression and low self-esteem.

But in Blackpool there are specific causes for concern.

Poor health outcomes are seen across a wide range of indicators, including those relating to children and nutrition.

Breast feeding rates are low in comparison to national figures, with only 59% of new mothers initiating breastfeeding compared to 75% for England as a whole. And at the six-month health visitor visit, 30% of all mothers report weening prior to six-months.

As Debra Davies, from the Blackpool Centre for Early Childhood Development put it: ‘The dominant culture across the town is of bottle feeding and the premature introduction of solid foods.’

This seriousness of this can be seen in data showing a higher than national rate for hospital admissions for gastroenteritis in children under five.

It is hoped that HENRY can help parts of Blackpool turn around these problems. When the programme starts working with families in the Blackpool Better Start areas in early 2021, it will focus on three strands of work:

  • Healthy infant feeding, including breastfeeding information, will be offered to families however they ultimately choose to feed their baby, by Infant Feeding Practitioners.
  • Building on this work, two-hour workshops on starting solid foods will be offered as part of the existing perinatal health offer ‘Baby Steps’.
  • Alongside this work a programme of workforce development will develop the skills and knowledge of local practitioners so they can provide sensitive and effective support to encourage behaviour change among the families they work with.

HENRY in Blackpool is at an early stage but it is hoped by taking a long look at the evidence, the new programme can respond to the challenges facing the community, and give families the tools they need to make healthy feeding work for them. As one parent who participated in an earlier HENRY programme said: ‘The service was a lifeline. I would have stopped breastfeeding without their support’. There is every cause to hope for similar successes in Blackpool.

Richard Newson is Media and Communications Manager at the National Children’s Bureau

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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