Families need more support in early years to give children ‘best possible start’

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life is a ‘critical phase’, a group of MPs has said Credit: Philip Toscano/PA

Families should be given more support during a child’s early years to ensure youngsters are getting the best possible start in life, a committee of MPs has warned.

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life is a “critical phase” in their development and what happens during that period can have lifelong consequences on their health and wellbeing, the Health and Social Care Committee said.

Poverty, poor housing and parents with mental health problems can all have an effect on a child’s development, they said, with those who have adverse experiences in childhood more likely to suffer poorer health later in life.

According to the MPs’ report, nearly a third of children have not reached a level of development known as “school readiness” by the age of five.

The cross-party group urged the Government to kick-start an early years “revolution” and take advantage of a “window of enormous opportunity”.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said children’s health was a “key priority” for the Government.

The committee recommended that councils, working with the local NHS and voluntary sector, should implement a cross-Government strategy to bring improved support for parents and children in their area.

They also called for an improvement to the Government’s Healthy Child Programme, and said health visitor checks should begin before conception and extend beyond the age of two-and-a-half.

The report highlighted the good work of the Flying Start programme in Wales, which provides support to children living in disadvantaged areas, as well as the Family Nurse Partnership in Scotland, Northern Ireland and parts of England.

MP Paul Williams, who led the committee for the inquiry, said: “There is a crisis in children’s mental health in this country. But all we are seeing are cuts to health visiting, children’s centre closures and increasing child poverty.

“The Government must now show inspiring leadership to help children get the best possible start in life.

“If our country is serious about prevention and reducing health inequalities then we must make massive investments and drive coordinated action right at the start of life.”

Fiona Smith, the Royal College of Nursing’s professional lead for children and young people’s nursing, said improving the health and wellbeing of the youngest children “should be a major priority for every society”.

She added: “Health visitors work on the frontline in local communities and make vital interventions from birth, helping to prevent illness and promote health and wellbeing – however, Government ambitions to increase the size of this workforce in England were not underpinned by a comprehensive workforce plan and as a result numbers are now flat-lining.

“The committee’s call for an ‘Early Years Revolution’ is one that the Government and NHS England must demonstrate they share through investment, not just in health visitors, but in all parts of the nursing workforce that support children and young people.

“Anything less will see this revolution remain words on a page with families missing out on the very interventions that can be the difference between leading a healthy life, and not.”

Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, is chairing an inter-ministerial group on early years family support, and said the report showed there was “growing recognition” of the importance of improving support.

“As we continue our work and look to make significant policy recommendations for the earliest years, we will consider the select committee’s views very carefully,” she said.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Children’s health is a key priority for this Government and we want every child to have the best start in life.

“The NHS Long Term Plan has committed to make the NHS one of the best places in the world to give birth and expand provision of quality mental health support for new and expectant mothers and their families.

“The Health Secretary has also set out his prevention vision, supporting good health and support for families to stop problems developing in the first place.”