Living in poverty 'having devastating effect on children's health'

Doctors warn of impact on child physical and mental health, with parents skimping on food and families living in poor housing.

Poverty is having a devastating impact on children's health, with parents diluting milk and skimping on food and youngsters living in damp, cold housing, doctors say

Across the UK, four million children live in poverty, figures show. Picture: iStock

A new report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), based on a survey of 250 doctors across the UK, found almost half think things are getting worse.

Just three doctors said the situation was improving for the children in their care.

Data shows that four million children – or three in ten – across the UK live in poverty, after housing costs are taken into account. This is predicted to rise to five million by the end of the decade.

Food insecurity

In the report, more than three in five doctors said food insecurity, including poor nutrition and inability to buy enough food, contributes 'very much' to the ill health of children in their care. A further quarter said it contributes 'somewhat'.

Doctors told how parents deprive themselves of food and rely on food banks, while others cannot afford clothes, toothbrushes or toothpaste.

One said: 'I see patients with poor nutritional state from poverty or low income, with growth below what is expected'. Another said: 'Parents dilute down milk as they can't afford formula milk.'

Poor housing

More than two thirds of respondents said homelessness or poor housing contribute 'very much' or 'somewhat' to the ill health of children they see. 

Just under a third said the inability to keep warm at home contributed 'very much' to child ill-health and a third that it contributes 'somewhat'. Others described mouldy, damp houses and families living in one room.

One said: 'I recently saw a child who was living in a mouse-infested house – the mum and baby plus four other kids were living upstairs as the mice had totally destroyed their living room.'

Stress and anxiety

Doctors also noted the impact of poverty on a child's mental health, with worry, stress and anxiety meaning children have a 'little part of their childhood taken away, a part of their day they will spend worrying instead of playing or learning'.

Commenting on the report, RCN professional lead for children and young people's nursing Fiona Smith said: 'Across the country, nursing staff are seeing families reliant on food banks to feed their children, with many having to choose between heating and putting dinner on the table. School nurses are coming across children who haven't eaten in 24 hours.

'Housing is often incredibly poor, with many children living in damp conditions, while others are actually homeless and are being put up in B&Bs. Both mentally and physically, these living conditions can have a hugely detrimental impact on children's health, now and in the future.

'Cuts to public health have exacerbated an already shameful situation.'

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