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'Like a lot of parents I am muddling through' - Irish mum of two on 'futureproofing' children

What decisions can we make about our children's health now which will protect them in the future and help them to thrive in adulthood?

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Can a little ice cream now and then be harmful?

Can a little ice cream now and then be harmful?

Our children are going to lead longer lives, so we need to protect them and their future

Our children are going to lead longer lives, so we need to protect them and their future

Dr Harry Barry

Dr Harry Barry

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Can a little ice cream now and then be harmful?

Cara and Chris Carter are parents to two children, Sophie (8) and Brandon (4). They live in Rathfarnham, Dublin. Cara is the founder of Cheeky Squeaks, a baby massage and yoga company; cheekysqueaks.ie.

Cara says: "Like a lot of parents, I am just muddling through. You try to do your best but at the end of the day you're human and you've been raised by a different set of parents.

If you look hard enough, you'll find a research paper to back you up in what you choose to do - or to contradict you. Then you berate yourself and feel guilty. Every generation is just trying to do the best with what they now know.

"My children get pizzas and waffles as treats but they also get their meat and their two veg. Lidl does great miniature peppers and carrots which are really handy to have in the fridge. And frozen sweetcorn is a handy little snack as well.

It's such a cliche but I do think everything in moderation. It's really naive to think that children can never have sugar because I think, at some point, sugar is going to cross their paths. Sophie turned around to me recently and said, 'Ice cream makes you fat'. I said, 'Ice cream won't make you fat, darling. Too much ice cream and not enough healthy stuff will make you fat'.

"Of course, then you're afraid of talking like that because you don't want them to start obsessing about body image. I really struggle to know where the barrier is between teaching them about the consequences of things and making them neurotic and giving them body image issues. And the trouble with being a parent is that you never know if you're getting it wrong until it's too late.

"There was a time when Sophie was trying to watch iCarly and Sam & Cat on Nickelodeon, but I put a stop to it because I could actually see a change in her behaviour when she was watching these shows about these obnoxious kids.

"I think this is why we've got children walking around south Dublin with American accents."

Screen time is an issue too, says Cara.

"They have access to tablets but I don't let them have smartphones even though Sophie has me absolutely tortured for my old iPhone.

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"Sophie gets an hour a day on her tablet and Brandon only gets it if we're going somewhere. I've heard people say it makes them so angry when they see parents sticking tablets in front of children in restaurants but you know what, it works for us. The children enjoy it and we still sit down as a family to enjoy our meal.

"I don't allow them free rein, though. They're not allowed unrestricted access to YouTube and they're not allowed to play games with messaging apps.

"Even now, Sophie has me tortured for a game called Roblox, which has a messaging service on it.

And at some point you have to make a call about what's more damaging: having access to this or the fact that they are going to be segregated from their peers because they don't have it. It's a real moral dilemma.

"The children play outside every day and we try our best to get them to do at least 15 minutes of reading a book and half an hour of drawing or writing before they get to sit and watch a movie. And I've been consciously trying to turn the television off...

"In my classes, as an ice-breaker, I always ask parents to share the best and worst parenting advice they ever received. And I always caveat it at the beginning by telling them that someone's best piece of advice is always someone's worst piece of advice.

"It reminds me of something a midwife once said to me at an antenatal class. Whatever keeps your chin above the waterline is what's right for you and your family. And that's what I try to pass on."

Futureproofing

The idea of 'futureproofing' our children has gained ground in recent years. In a rapidly changing world, parents want to equip their offspring with skills that will help them thrive in the 21st century (and ensure that a robot doesn't steal their job!).

But what about the health issues that can lead to problems in later life? Our children are going to lead longer lives - that much is clear - but what precautions can we take now to ensure that they lead fuller lives too?

This issue shines a spotlight on the key health challenges facing Irish children, and the steps parents can take to tackle them. But first, let's take a quick look at the state of the nation's children…

Broadly speaking, Irish children are in good health. The most recent ERSI Growing Up in Ireland survey, which looks at issues facing children aged seven and eight, found that around 80pc of children were described by parents as being 'very healthy', with a further 19pc described as 'healthy', but with a few minor problems.

These statistics suggest a bright future for Irish children, but issues such as obesity, anxiety and excessive screen time continue to pose serious health challenges.

Head of Advocacy for the Irish Heart Foundation, Chris Macey, recently told the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs that 85,000 Irish children will die prematurely due to being overweight and obese.

"Children as young as eight are presenting with high blood pressure and young people are showing signs of heart disease that used to only be seen in middle age," he said, before calling for vending machines to be banned in schools in a bid to tackle the issue.

Additional research from the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) shows that while the levels of excess weight in children appears to be stabilising over time, at least one in five Irish children is overweight or obese, with girls and children from low-income families most at risk.

This was borne out in the Growing Up in Ireland survey, which showed that 27pc of children from lowest income families were overweight or obese, compared with 16pc of children from the highest income families.

The largely sedentary behaviour of screen time is another risk factor for obesity, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) warning that the vast majority of young people aren't getting the recommended amount of daily exercise and are therefore at a higher risk of sleep deprivation, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Irish children aged seven and eight have, on average, one to two hours of screen time on a week day and three hours or more at the weekend, according to the Growing Up in Ireland survey.

Meanwhile, a survey conducted by Laya Healthcare, in line with their 'Super Troopers' health homework programme, found that children under 12 years of age are spending more than 23 hours a week in front of screens, compared to 11 hours a week outdoors. (While there are no national guidelines around children's screen time, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommendations.)

Excessive screen time has also been linked to the decline in children's fundamental movement skills (FMS). These specific movements (think throwing, catching and running) are considered the building blocks of children's coordination but recent research from the Insight Centre of Data Analytics in Dublin City University shows that just 11pc of Irish adolescents have mastered all of them. Study lead Dr Johann Issartel describes the lack of FMS among children as a "vicious cycle" that affects confidence and motivation, and becomes a barrier to sports participation in later life.

Short-sightedness and eye strain due to increased screen use is also on the rise among young people. Prof James Loughman, director of the Centre for Eye Research Ireland (CERI), at Dublin Institute of Technology, says more and more children with no family history of myopia are being diagnosed with the condition, and warns that children need to spend more time outdoors on a daily basis to reduce the risk.

Dangerous decibel levels is another concern. A recent study linked portable music player use with high-frequency hearing loss among children of school age, and parents have been advised to monitor the volume level on their children's devices.

Screen time can also lead to less sleep time. "Studies are consistently supporting that we are all getting less sleep and this includes our children," says paediatric sleep consultant Lucy Wolfe.

"Parents can help their children achieve optimum sleep as per their age by making sleep a priority and establishing positive sleep practices that include regular wake and bedtimes.

"The early bedtime between 7-8pm is proven to help encourage longer sleep tendencies together with a wake time not exceeding 7.30am," she adds. "And this alone could be considered the most important step towards a healthy sleep strategy."

The rise of Battle Royale games like Fortnite, and the classification of gaming addiction as a mental health disorder by the World Health Organisation, have heightened parental concerns.

A study published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors showed that video game addiction appears to be associated with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.

The same study found that men are more likely to become addicted to online gaming, gambling and cyber-pornography, whereas women are more likely to become addicted to social media, texting and online shopping.

Drogheda-based GP, Dr Harry Barry, author of Emotional Resilience, says parents must take steps to curtail screen time.

"If we continue doing what we're doing, children are going to grow into a group of people who are obsessed with the world of technology," he says.

"They are going to see their whole life played out online and struggle to live in what I call the real world. In the long run, empathy, social skills, and the ability to read non-verbal cues and converse with people will be affected.

"I think it's leading them into the world of rating and comparing," he adds. "And that's going to lead to an increased risk of perfectionism, anxiety and depression."

Dr Barry says anxiety and panic attacks are the main mental health issues affecting young people in Ireland. This is backed up by a recent survey by the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) in which a quarter of its members reported a spike in anxiety levels in their schools.

Social anxiety is also on the rise, he adds. "It's absolutely inevitable when you have a group of children who are sitting with each other but instead of talking to each other are communicating through their phones."

Considered as a whole, the research spells out a grim outlook, but it's important to balance it with the cultural shifts and medical developments that have occurred in the last 50 years. The infant mortality rate has dropped significantly, infectious diseases have been eradicated with vaccines and the introduction of water fluoridation has led to a substantial reduction in the prevalence of dental caries. Irish children are also less likely to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, according to the most recent Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study.

It shows that our parents' generation took steps to future-proof their children, just as this generation can do for their own.


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