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North Somerset: Giving children the healthiest start in life

North Somerset has launched programmes targeting issues such as nutrition, healthy weight and oral health for children.

A range of different initiatives have been set up in North Somerset to support families of children under the age of five. There has been a focus on improving breastfeeding rates over recent years and that is now being built on by launching new programmes targeting issues such as nutrition, healthy weight and oral health.

The drive to increase breastfeeding rates

Starting well is one of three core themes in North Somerset’s Health and Wellbeing Strategy alongside living well and ageing well. “The early years are really crucial,” said North Somerset Director of Public Matt Lenny. “If a child can start school healthy there will be an established pattern of behaviour in that family that is likely to last throughout childhood. It is why we have been so determined to give every family with young children the best support in those formative years.”

One of the most successful initiatives has been the work done on breastfeeding since 2018. Breastfeeding was identified as a key area of concern, particularly in North Somerset’s main town of Weston-Super-Mare, which had lower breastfeeding rates than the rest of the area.

In some wards half as many children were being breast-fed than in the rest of North Somerset. Four years ago, the public health team led a review of what else needed to be done to support new mothers. It found that despite funding being targeted at more deprived areas, the breastfeeding support services were not well established and there was low engagement with local mothers.  

It led to a number of new initiatives, including getting local businesses to sign up to a “Breastfeeding Welcome” scheme to promote the fact breastfeeding was encouraged. More than 40 local businesses signed up, including cafes, restaurants and shops.

Meanwhile, early years and children’s centres staff were given training in how to support breastfeeding, while a specialist breastfeeding clinic run by health visitors was set up in two children’s centres in neighbourhoods with the lowest rates.  

The council also invested in developing a network of volunteer peer champions, who received training from the public health team. More than 20 have been trained and are regularly volunteering.

This led to the creation of three peer support groups, breastfeeding “out and about” sessions in community cafes and venues and a very active Facebook group, which proved particularly useful during the COVID-19 lockdowns. 

The impact has been significant with the target areas seeing breastfeeding rates increase from around a third at six to eight weeks to around a half. 

Mother-of-two Karen said the volunteer support group she attended provided invaluable help. “The emotional support you build is just as valuable as the practical support. It’s definitely my safe space.” 

How success is being built on

Matt said the work done on breastfeeding has helped inform the future work targeting the early years, which has become increasingly important given the threat of widening health inequalities following the pandemic and cost of living crisis.

“The thing we really learned with this was the importance of working with the community. The peer volunteers made a huge difference. Local government is very good at developing service pathways and the civic side of things – creating the right environment to support the wider determinants – but we have not always been so good at empowering the community. The breastfeeding programme showed the importance of this.”

A number of new initiatives are now in the process of being launched. They include a pilot programme on food, nutrition and oral health with the early years settings. Staff at nine nurseries are receiving training from the public health team on nutrition, covering topics such as the Eatwell plate and different food groups as well as being given advice about how to make the food they serve children healthier and small grants for resources or equipment.

Matt said: “We are very much doing it in partnership with the early years settings. They will have lots of ideas how best to engage children and their families with this. We plan to learn from the pilot before expanding it across the whole of North Somerset.”

Projects are also being run with workplaces – on physical activity and nutrition – and in schools where school nurses run emotional health and wellbeing clinics as part of a wider push on health across the age groups. The ChatHealth resource is now available in all secondary schools to improve access to online advice for students.

On top of the early years settings pilot, there are two other key projects. The first focusses on oral health and has seen the public health team create a new role to focus on oral health. The practitioner is going to work with nurseries, schools and children’s centres to set-up initiatives such as teeth-brushing programmes.

And the second project will see school nurses providing extended brief interventions to children and families on developing and maintaining a healthy weight, and health visitors, midwives and school nurses receiving training in communication around food, physical activity and healthy weight to families in pregnancy, postnatally and into childhood.

“We have also piloted a postnatal ‘Health, Exercise and Nutrition’ 12-week weight management programme alongside our already established antenatal programme, for women who may benefit from tailored lifestyle support at this important stage, which sits alongside our general adult weight management services,” Matt added.

Contact details

Matt Lenny, Director of Public Health, North Somerset Council: [email protected], 07920 543103