Health and social care workers have only the first thousand days of a child’s life to make a real difference to its future - if the youngster’s parents are struggling.
That was the warning to a committee of councillors who heard that Lancashire ranks significantly worse than the England average in almost half of the measures which make up the ‘child health profile’ of an area.
Judith Gault, a senior manager in Lancashire County Council’s family wellbeing service, said children’s futures risked becoming “fragile and broken” if they did not receive appropriate care from their earliest days.
“The first thousand days of a child’s life are where 80 percent of brain development occurs,” Ms. Gault said. “There will never be another time...where we can make so many differences [to make them] robust adults in the future.
“Parents or primary caregivers are the people that most affect children’s development. The quality of those relationships and experiences during that time are vital - because without those interventions, everything becomes fragile and broken and [children] have less resilience to deal with things in the future,” she added.
Lancashire’s child health profile shows the county is performing worse than the England average in 14 out of 32 measures, including child mortality rate and the level of children’s development by the end of their first year at school. But the area outperforms the average when judged by rates of family homelessness and the numbers of children living in low income families.
However, there are stark differences between districts - with neighbouring boroughs Ribble Valley and Burnley each boasting a very different set of statistics. Blackpool Council has its own standalone child health profile, in which it performs worse than the England average on 19 measures.
Members of the children’s scrutiny committee also heard that health visitors are now obliged to make five ‘contacts’ with new parents at set points until their child turns two - and the first of them comes before birth. The committee heard that support for the county’s youngest mums is a particular priority.
“Teenage mums are much more like to face poverty, which impacts their child’s wellbeing,” Karen Gosling, Lancashire County Council’s senior public health practitioner, said. “So when we’re thinking about child health needs, we are thinking about the impact of them today and [in the] long term.”
Committee member and former council leader, Jennifer Mein, told the meeting that the help given to new mums had changed - and not necessarily for the better.
“When I had my children, you were in hospital for a week after having a baby. We learned how to bath them and the importance of feeding, sleeping and talking to the child. You learned all that before you got the child home on your home - it doesn’t happen these days,” County Cllr Mein said.
Responsibility for public health was devolved from government to local authorities in 2013 and Labour committee member Nikki Hennessy wanted to know why the situation had not improved.
“It is a massive job, but we’ve had five years and things are not getting better. Money has been cut and it is an issue - we have 11 [public health] vacancies,” County Cllr Hennessy said.
Cabinet member for health, Shaun Turner, said that when the Conservatives retook control of county hall last year, the authority “didn’t have a relationship with the NHS”.
“I’m not trying to make any political points here, but maybe we should have started earlier,” County Cllr Turner said. “We’re achieving better results because we are not all working in silos - every contact [with a child] should count.”
The meeting heard that the authority is now planning a “total neighbourhoods” approach to health and social care, which will see services integrated at a local level.
HOW LANCASHIRE COMPARES ON CHILDREN’S WELLBEING*
Worse than the England average for the number of children...
...killed or seriously injured on the roads
...with decayed, missing or filled teeth
...admitted to hospital (aged 0-14)
and for the overall child mortality rate (aged 1-17)
Better than the England average for the number of children…
...affected by family homelessness
...who are first-time entrants to the youth justice system
...living in low income families
...who are obese at the end of primary school
*excludes Blackpool and Blackburn
HOW BLACKPOOL COMPARES ON CHILDREN'S WELLBEING
Worse than the England average for the number of...
...mothers who smoke at the time their child is born
...children in care
...hospital admissions due to substance misuse (aged 15-24)
Better than the England average for the number of...
...A&E attendances (aged 0-4)
...hospital admissions for tooth decay
...children in care receiving immunisations