Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going to Give Children a Healthy Start

Apr 5, 2016, 11:00 AM, Posted by Jamie Bussel

We want all kids to enter kindergarten at a healthy weight. And we believe it’s possible within the decade.

Pregnancy through early childhood forms a critical window of opportunity for ensuring children get a healthy start to life.

In March, our program Healthy Eating Research published the most comprehensive examination to date of factors that can increase a child’s risk for obesity early in life. It shows that women who weigh more before they get pregnant, gain excess weight during pregnancy, or use tobacco while pregnant, are more likely to have children who become overweight or obese.

There are a variety of factors beyond prenatal health that also influence a child’s weight. Children form their taste preferences early in life, which is why it’s so important to ensure that they have access to a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains―right when they begin eating solid foods. Play and physical activity are also essential for optimal development. And there’s no reason for young children to drink sugary drinks—milk and water are best. All of these habits, if learned in early childhood, can last a lifetime.

The good news is the country as a whole is making progress in helping more kids start life at a healthy weight: Obesity rates among kids ages 2 to 5 have gone down in recent years.

Vibrant stories from around the country show what a healthy start to life can look like:

  • My First School/Head Start in Taos Pueblo, N.M., has an indoor organic garden where students, teachers and parents grow and learn about vegetables. Healthy shifts at the school were motivated by a 2010 report from the state finding that nearly 30 percent of children entering kindergarten were overweight or obese.
  • The Outdoor Learning Environment at the First Environments Early Learning Center in Durham, N.C., surrounds the early childhood center with play and learning settings that help children gain an understanding of environmental stewardship and food production. The design provides a range of settings to optimize children’s time outside for play and physical activity.
  • Educare is an immersive program in Tulsa, Okla., providing year-round preschool to children from lower-income communities. In addition to the educational benefits, families are provided with access to mental health counseling and nutrition classes. Research shows that children who participate are entering kindergarten just as prepared socially, emotionally and academically as children who don’t live in poverty.

These exciting examples give me hope that we can create a Culture of Health in early childhood. But there’s still a lot more to be done. Black children between 2 and 5 are more than three times as likely to be obese as their white peers; Hispanic children are more than four times as likely. Kindergartners who are less socially competent are more likely to have been arrested by age 25. So we must keep pushing forward, and we cannot rest until all children are growing up as healthy as possibly.

That’s why we’ve recently started work with Boston Medical Center and Nemours to develop a comprehensive strategy for how to create healthier environments that can support families from the time a woman is pregnant up through a child’s fifth birthday. We’re hoping to work with policymakers, early care and education providers, clinicians, communities and families themselves to ensure that all children get a healthy start to life and can reach kindergarten at a healthy weight.

We are also working with the American Academy of Pediatrics to identify national policies already on the books that can support a healthy weight for young kids, and look for new policy opportunities too. When that work is ready, we look forward to sharing it and getting feedback on where we should focus our efforts.

We’re committed to creating healthier supports for women before and during pregnancy, and ensuring kids can be healthy physically, mentally and emotionally from day one. This is essential not just for kids and their immediate families, but for our country as a whole, as my colleague Kristin pointed out last year.

Throughout this effort we are eager to learn as we go and shift our strategy as needed. Doing so will help to build a Culture of Health, one in which all families have the opportunity to raise healthy children from the start, and every child has the opportunity to thrive.

Jamie Bussel, MPH, is a program officer working in the area of childhood obesity and vulnerable populations. She designs and manages efforts that support environments and policies that promote the health of children and families. Read her full bio