Why the state of child health must be taken seriously

Children Public Health

Nearly one in five children in the UK is living in poverty and inequality is blighting their lives. Those from the most deprived backgrounds experience much worse health compared with the most affluent – a situation that means that UK performs relatively poorly when it comes to child health when compared to other Western European countries.

The State of Child Health brings together data for the first time 25 measures of the health of UK children, ranging from specific conditions such as asthma, diabetes and epilepsy, risk factors for poor health such as obesity and a low rate of breastfeeding, to child deaths.

On nearly all of these measures, children from the poorest backgrounds fare worse.

The tip of the iceberg: child deaths

The UK ranks 15 out of 19 Western European countries on infant (under one year of age) mortality and has one of the highest rates for children and young people in Western Europe. There is a strong association between deprivation and mortality, for example infant mortality is more than twice as high in the lowest compared with the highest socio-economic groups.

Smoking in pregnancy

The prevalence of smoking during pregnancy in the UK is higher than in many European countries (for example 5% in Lithuania and Sweden, compared with 19% in Scotland, 16% in Wales and 15% in Northern Ireland). Smoking in pregnancy increases the likelihood of death, disability, and disease – for example stillbirth, cot death and the risk of respiratory disease across the life-course. There is marked variation in smoking in pregnancy across the UK with a strong association with deprivation; for example in Scotland over a quarter (25.9%) of women in the most deprived areas acknowledged smoking following the birth of their baby, compared with 3.3% in the least deprived areas.


Breastfeeding has substantial health benefits for mothers and babies and yet breastfeeding rates in England and Scotland has shown minimal improvement since data recording commenced in 1975, with no improvement over the last five years, and remains lower than many other comparable high-income countries. At 6 months, only 34% of babies in the UK are wholly or partially breastfed, compared to 71% in Norway. Across the UK, 46% of mothers in the most deprived areas breastfed compared with 65% in the most affluent areas.


Obesity leads to substantially increased risk of serious life-long health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Across England, Scotland and Wales more than one in five children in the first year of primary school are overweight or obese – and there has been minimal improvement in the prevalence of child overweight and obesity over the past decade. In 2015/2016, 40% of children in England’s most deprived areas were overweight or obese, compared to 27% in the most affluent areas.


The percentage of 15-year-old children smoking regularly is 6% in England and 8% in Wales and Scotland – and starting to smoke during adolescence increases the likelihood of being a life-long smoker. Smoking continues to be the greatest single cause of avoidable mortality in the UK. The prevalence of child smoking is much higher amongst children from the most deprived areas; for example in Scotland’s most deprived areas, at least 1 in 10 young people are regular smokers.

Bold action, clear policies

Despite the fact that the health of infants, children and young people in the UK has improved considerably over the last 30 years, the fact that children living in the most deprived areas are much more likely to be in poor health is tragic.

That’s why in State of Child Health, we’re calling for a series of measures, including:

  • Each UK Government to develop a child health and wellbeing strategy, coordinated, implemented and evaluated across the nation

  • Each UK Government to adopt a ‘child health in all policies’ approach

  • UK Government to introduce a ban on the advertising of foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt in all broadcast media before 9pm
  • Each UK Government to develop cross-departmental support for breastfeeding; this should include a national public health campaign and a sector wide approach that includes employers, to support women to breastfeed
  • An expansion of national programmes to measure the height and weight of infants and children after birth, before school and during adolescence
  • A reversal of public health cuts in England, which are disproportionately affecting children’s services

  • The introduction of minimum unit alcohol pricing in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, in keeping with actions by the Scottish Government

  • UK Government to extend the ban on smoking in public places to schools, playgrounds and hospitals
  • UK Government to prohibit the marketing of electronic cigarettes to children and young people
  • National public health campaigns that promote good nutrition and exercise before, during and after pregnancy

We also want to see each Government across the UK to adopt a ‘child health in all policies approach’. That means that whatever policies are made, from whatever Government department, they must consider the impact on child health.

Prevention is better than cure

Investing in children makes not only moral sense, but economic sense too. It is well known that many of the mental and physical health problems experienced in adulthood have their roots in childhood. Getting it right early reaps benefits not only for this generation but for generations to come.


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