Tuesday, April 21, 2009

UK fails in child wellbeing AGAIN

The shocking news that the UK has finished close to the bottom of a European study on child wellbeing shows that our children are being systematically failed.

There is simply no excuse for this to be the case in what is still one of the world's wealthiest countries.

Of course it's not all about money, but we can't exactly hold our heads up high and say that anything like all our children are living in decent housing - and I don't mean luxurious, just warm, dry and functional. Nor can we say that they all get a decent education when so many still leave school without basic literacy skills.

What's more worrying than anything, though, is that many children are growing up unhappy, which, even if you look at it selfishly, is going to have an impact on the next generation's ability to fulfil its potential. You can reasonably quickly and easily sort out housing and money and education, but rebuilding and restoring a shattered psyche takes a lot longer.

What are the countries at the top of the league doing that we are not? Well, let's look at them. The Netherlands, Slovenia, Iceland, all of Scandinavia, Ireland - can we identify some common factors about how they bring up their children? Well, in Scandinavia, breastfeeding is by far the norm, even at six months of age. That has to have an impact not only on psychological wellbeing, but also on long term health. Compare and contrast to some of our poorest areas in the UK, where breastfeeding rates struggle even to make double figures. This article shows how a grassroots campaign started 30 years ago ultimately changed the culture from formula friendly to breastfeeding friendly. There are lessons to be learned from that.

I think there is enough evidence of the health benefits to mother and baby, including a new study today to seriously set about bringing about that cultural change.

I also think there are elements of our culture which hinder the crucial bonding process between mother and child. We seem hooked on regime orientated parenting methods which involve separation, isolation and unnecessary stress for both mother and baby. Some of the most stressed mothers I've spoken to are those who are trying to shoehorn themselves and their babies into one of these programmes that has every minute of every day planned out, from when exactly to express milk or have a shower to when the baby should sleep. This article explains eloquently why this approach can cause long term problems. There is a very weird attitude to children in this country, too. If you don't have children with you, you get to eat in nice restaurants, if you do, you are pointed towards garish pubs with play areas.

It might be a random coincidence that in this study of mental health across Europe, the UK ends up at the top, with the highest prevalence of conditions like Depression, but I don't think so. Funnily enough, the Netherlands, which is at the top of the wellbeing study has the lowest rate of mental health problems.

Of all the things that our Government has to hang its head in shame about - the Iraq War, failure to regulate the banks contributing to economic meltdown, the way it's let down the children of this country systematically has to be the worst. It's not that it wasn't warned - this is not the first time a study has come to these conclusions. I expected more from the Labour Party.

It will take a complicated combination of economic and social measures to change things - who has the political will to take this on and bring about that change? I think that the Lib Dems have good answers on things like housing and tax and childcare, but nobody seems to want to take on the artificial baby milk industry which is still allowed to provide so much information to new mothers, in contrast to the Scandinavian countries.

All of this provides much food for thought for Jo Swinson MP's Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing.

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