Health: Raising a child is hard work but has health benefits

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Raising a toddler could be boosting your health says Lisa Salmon.

Despairing parents trying to persuade their fussy toddlers to eat fruit and vegetables should try to look on the bright side - their own diet and lifestyle may well be improving as a result.

Research has found that three in five UK parents (57 per cent) have transformed their own mealtime habits for the better in order to set a good example for their toddler. And it seems that the primary motivation for more than half (53 per cent) of the parents was the fear that their unhealthy eating habits would rub off on their child.

In addition, parenthood has prompted many mums and dads to change their lifestyle habits; 37 per cent of parents questioned by Growing Up Milk (Growingupmilk info.com) claim to have cut down on alcohol, and nearly a fifth (23 per cent) say they eat less junk food. Almost one in 10 have completely given up smoking and even drinking alcohol, at 11 per cent and nine per cent respectively.

GP and registered nutritional therapist Dr Sarah Brewer points out that becoming a parent makes many mums and dads change their health choices.

“Having a child is great motivation when it comes to re-examining your values, priorities and lifestyle,” she says. “From both a personal and professional perspective, I’m aware that many parents decide to either stop or cut back on potentially harmful activities.”

She says parents often become acutely aware of the effect their own unhealthy habits can have on their children’s health: smoking before, during and after pregnancy has a profound effect on child health, increasing the risk of sudden infant death, asthma and childhood cancer, she points out, while poor diet before, during and after pregnancy can have consequences for children’s long-term health.

“Nutrition within the womb can even predict future risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke,” explains Dr Brewer, author of Planning A Baby - A Complete Guide To Pre-Conceptual Care.

Almost one in four (24 per cent) mums and dads have cut down on takeaways and ready meals, according to the poll of 1,000 parents of children aged one to three, while almost a third (31 per cent) are now more likely to whip up fresh homemade meals than before having a toddler.

Similarly, almost three in 10 (28 per cent) are now more conscious of what they eat - more than two in five (43 per cent) eat more fruit and vegetables and 22 per cent sit down to more salads. A quarter (26 per cent) say they’re also more aware of the vitamin and nutrient content in food since having a child.

“Healthy habits such as regular exercise are best promoted by example, so eating fruit and vegetables, walking or cycling rather than taking the car, and respect for alcohol can be instilled at an early age,” adds Dr Brewer.

Almost four in five (79 per cent) parents say that setting their toddler up with good nutritional habits is very important to them, and the survey found that mums spend 45 minutes a day preparing dinners for their toddlers.

The YoungMinds Parents’ Helpline is on 0808 802 5544.