Habits of a lifetime? Babies’ and toddlers’ diets and family life in Scotland
Scotland has the highest rates of child obesity in Europe with more than 1 in every 4 children aged between 2 and 15 being overweight or obese in 2008. The need to curb the nation’s unhealthy eating habits through Scottish public health policy has been acknowledged, although there remains a shortage of policy addressing the eating habits of infants and young children as they develop in the context of family life. This is matched by a shortage of empirical research which uses nationally representative longitudinal data on Scottish children, to look at how diets of children under five develop within the home. This doctoral research seeks to explain how children’s nutritional trajectories develop from birth through infancy and into early childhood in contemporary Scotland within the context of maternal resources, maternal use of nutrition advice, and family meal habits. Theoretical concepts pertaining to social constructionism and the symbolic meaning of meal rituals, as well as theories of risk and responsibilisation, human capital and health behaviours, and discussions about agency and structure, frame the research questions and the interpretation of results. The research draws on the first three annual sweeps of the Growing Up in Scotland nationally representative, longitudinal survey of families and young children. The analysis is based on multivariate proportional hazards regression and logistic regression models. The empirical analysis shows that maternal education is a consistently superior predictor of children’s nutritional outcomes, when compared to maternal occupational classification and household income, and that children of more educated mothers have healthier diets throughout infancy and childhood. This points to the utility of human capital theories which stress the importance of education, rather than income, and also reflects on the need for policy to recognise the structural nature of nutritional inequalities. More educated mothers are also more likely to be proactive in using healthy eating advice, resonating with theories of risk awareness and medicalised childhoods. Surprisingly, mothers from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to use advice from health professionals, possibly as a result of health professionals actively targeting their support to more ‘at risk’ families. Yet these mothers are also more apprehensive about the interference of health professionals in aspects of childrearing. Relevant policy reflections pointed to the need to identify how support for mothers from more disadvantaged backgrounds can be provided in formats which help to overcome the culture of mistrust towards health professionals prevalent among disadvantaged parents. Nevertheless, positive associations between infant diet and maternal use of breastfeeding advice from health professionals are found, in line with theories of power-knowledge, lending support to information-based policy initiatives as a tool for improving infant nutrition. The analysis also indicates that children who are breastfed, and children who are weaned later have healthier diets in their toddler years, which contributes to the proposal of a theoretical typology explaining how young children’s nutritional trajectories evolve from the pre-partum period through infancy and childhood. Finally, the analysis suggests that communal patterns of eating play an important role in children’s dietary quality, attesting to the importance of the meal ritual as a vehicle for socialising children into developing particular tastes for food. Thus, there seems to be room for policy initiatives which address not only what children eat, but how young children and families eat in the context of everyday family life.