Guest Blog: The cost-of-living crisis – it’s time to remember infants and young children

Guest Blog: The cost-of-living crisis – it’s time to remember infants and young children

In our latest guest blog, we hear from Rachel Childs of First Steps Nutrition Trust to explore how the ongoing cost of living crisis is a significant cause for concern for the early years. 

As inflation and food prices continue to rise and financial forecasts predict the situation to deteriorate further, there are reports that some families are struggling to feed their children.

There are an estimated 39,000 infants under the age of 12 months and 179,400 children aged 1-4 years living in poverty in the UK (Child Poverty Action Group, 2022; Office for National Statistics, 2021) and yet their needs are rarely articulated or discussed. A group seemingly overlooked, all of these babies and young children are growing and developing rapidly and require an appropriately nutrient-dense diet, ideally including being breastfed in the first year or more, to ensure they meet their full potential and are protected from becoming overweight, as well as from childhood diseases and other non-communicable diseases later in life.

The rising cost of infant formula

Exclusive breastfeeding is the normal and optimal way to feed infants under six months, and it is recommended that breastfeeding continue for 2 years or more, but for at least a year (Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, 2018). However, despite the fact that most new mothers in the UK want to breastfeed their baby, complex contextual factors let these mothers down (McAndrew et al, 2012). Consequently, many infants are fed formula within a matter for days and weeks of being born, and by six months of age nearly 70% of babies are being exclusively formula fed (McAndrew et al, 2012).

In this context it is unfortunate that formula is expensive and prices are rising, for some products by as much as 14% in the nine months between August 2021 and May 2022 (First Steps Nutrition Trust, 2022a). Price increases are disproportionately affecting those on lower incomes as families with a higher socio-economic status are more likely to breastfeed for longer (Augsburg, 2021). In addition, families relying on the Healthy Start/ Best Start Schemes to purchase formula must now rely on their own funds to adequately feed their babies, as the payments fall short of meeting the cost of formula by approximately £2 – £6 per month (First Steps Nutrition Trust, 2022b).

This is worrying news for infants, as research has shown that families who cannot afford infant formula may be forced to resort to unsafe practices in order to feed their babies. These practices include; watering down feeds, adding cereal to the formula, introducing cows’ milk as the main milk drink before 1 year of age, and using a formula type that is less appropriate and even potentially unsafe, such as follow-on formula (APPG, 2018). Although these practices put infants at greater risk of short and long-term illness and disease, there is no data available to show the extent to which this is happening and further research into coping strategies employed by food insecure households with infants would be beneficial.

The contextual challenges of feeding young children

Food-based recommendations for babies older than 6 months (Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, 2018) include the introduction of a wide range of solid foods in an age-appropriate from at around six months alongside continued milk feeds (ideally breastmilk), and the gradual diversification of diet, flavour, and texture thereafter.

It is likely that food price rises are negatively impacting on the diets of young children. Recent data from The Food Foundation reveals worrying rises in food insecurity and potential concerns about declines in the quality of young children’s diets. In January 2022, 4.9% of households with children had gone without balanced meals and in February 2022, 26% of families and 49% of households earning less than £30,000 a year were buying fewer fresh vegetables because of the increase in price of groceries (The Food Foundation, 2022).

The pervasive marketing of commercially-produced foods and drinks for babies and young children exacerbates this issue, placing further pressure on families to spend their limited income on costly, and often entirely discretionary, foods and drinks for their children. Research shows that 70% of households with children aged 9-10 months purchase commercial baby foods and drinks (Augsburg, 2021) which are typically less healthy than marketed, as well as being more expensive than unprocessed and minimally processed alternatives (First Steps Nutrition Trust, 2022b).

Decreasing diet quality within UK households is particularly worrying for infants and young children. Nutrients play a key role in immunity and brain development for all children, but especially those under the age of two years, and nutrient deficiencies can lead to both disease and damage that can affect a child for the rest of his or her life (1000 DAYS, 2022). In addition, poor quality diets in infancy are associated with excess weight gain by school age (Okubo et al, 2015), which can lead to obesity in later life; associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers in adulthood (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022). In a context where 1 in 7 children in England are already living with obesity by the time they start school (NHS Digital, 2021), this is particularly concerning.

We must act now to protect the nutritional status of infants and young children

Despite their unique vulnerabilities, the needs of infants and young children have been largely ignored at National level, as evidenced by the recent Government Food Strategy. In addition, the social safety nets designed to protect young children have become insufficient in light of food price rises or can only be accessed by those children in maintained childcare settings.

It is imperative that the nutritional needs of infants and young children are no longer ignored. Alongside partner organisations, First Steps Nutrition Trust are working to influence policies which enable the safe, appropriate and optimal feeding of infants and young children in the UK, and to protect them from commercial interest. This includes advocating for an increase in the value of the Healthy Start / Best Start payment as its value fails to keep abreast of rising food prices, updating guidance for Local Authorities supporting families with babies facing food insecurity, and promoting our Eating Well guides and simple messages to prevent parents and carers from being pressured into purchasing unnecessarily expensive or discretionary products (as outlined in the image below).

More information, including our Eating Well guides and practical advice for those supporting parents and carers to provide appropriate, safe and nutritious food for their infants and young children, can be found here: First Steps Nutrition Trust



About the author

Rachel Childs is a Public Health Nutritionist. She has worked for international NGOs for a number of years, primarily on tools that assess access to nutritionally appropriate diets in different contexts. She is passionate about ensuring that every child in the UK has access to the nutrition needed to grow up healthy, strong and able to learn.





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