How is pandemic affecting our young children’s diets?

Caregivers are being urged to take part in an online survey about how their children’s feeding habits have been affected by the Covid-19 emergency, reveals KATHRIONA DEVEREUX
How is pandemic affecting our young children’s diets?

Áine O’Sullivan, the baby daughter of Dr Liz O’Sullivan, who is conducting a survey about feeding babies and young children in a crisis.

AS Winnie the Pooh famously said, “What could be more important than a little something to eat?”

But how has the Covid-19 crisis affected how we feed our young children?

Two dietitians and lecturers from TU Dublin, Dr Liz O’Sullivan and Dr Aileen Kennedy, want to find out and are conducting an online survey about feeding babies and young children in a crisis.

They would like to hear from caregivers of children aged two and younger about how the coronavirus restrictions have affected them.

Dr O’Sullivan, mother of toddler Áine, says: “We tend to think of natural disasters as an emergency, but Covid-19 is a type of emergency too. We know that emergencies can adversely affect how people feed their children.

“Breastfeeding can be undermined by lack of support or use of supplemental formula, or formula feeds can be improperly prepared or watered down because of low supplies.”

These dietitians want to know what the Irish situation is.

Dr Kennedy adds: “There have been stories about mothers finding it difficult to get help with breastfeeding and people not being able to buy infant formula.

“We want to find out how many people had these problems and hear about any other struggles parents may have around feeding their infant during this time.

Babies in neonatal care are of particular interest to Aileen as her youngest child was born prematurely and had a lengthy stay in hospital.

“Some neonatal units are restricting the visits of parents and we are interested in understanding how that is affecting breastfeeding,” she said.

“Hearing directly from caregivers will help us understand the types of support that would have made their experience of feeding their new baby easier so that we can learn from this crisis.

Dr Liz O'Sullivan.
Dr Liz O'Sullivan.

“For some low-income families or those relying on public transport, stockpiling or bulk buying is not an option. Reports of busy food banks and schools delivering free lunches to families are all examples of how access to food can be disrupted by a crisis like this.

“We are keen to hear from all kinds of families all over the country about their experiences.” Dr O’Sullivan added.

Catriona Twomey, from Cork Penny Dinners, is very aware of the struggles some families have in feeding their small children at this time.

At the very start of the crisis, mothers phoned Twomey because they couldn’t find their preferred formula and were unable to travel around from shop to shop searching for it.

Twomey said there was a “genuine fear” that parents wouldn’t be able to source food for their babies but the Cork Penny Dinners team were able to track down supplies and give them to families.

Twomey said there is a “huge amount of hunger out there” and the demand for Cork Penny Dinners assistance has “dramatically driven” during the crisis.

Many families that would have relied on a part-time retail job to make ends meet have lost a significant chunk of their income while not being entitled to the Covid-19 payment. People on low incomes don’t have savings to fall back on and quickly find that they can’t put food on the table.

“Lots of people who are outside the system, not in receipt of social welfare, are struggling,” said Twomey.

“We’ve dropped food to students in student accommodation. There are a massive amount of families who are living in B&Bs, hotels and hubs. They were already living in incredibly stressful situations and now that stress has grown.

“It’s a form of torture to confine and rear young children in a room. Parents are aware of the foods they should be feeding their babies and toddlers, but cooking fresh wholesome food is not an option in a B&B and sometimes fast food is the only option,” says Twomey.

Ireland doesn’t have a National Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies Plan, even though the World Health Organisation has recommended that all countries should have one.

The information the survey will collect will be essential in planning for other emergency situations, such as loss of electricity and services due to storms, or boil water notices due to contamination of the water supply.

Loss of water and electricity supplies may not affect breastfeeding and mothers can continue to breastfeed through all types of emergencies, but lack of support, especially in the early weeks, can hamper breastfeeding. This is especially problematic, as the safest food for a baby in an emergency is its mother’s own milk.

Twomey would urge anyone who has been affected by the crisis regarding how they feed their children to complete the national survey so that it can inform future planning.

Dr Aileen Kennedy.
Dr Aileen Kennedy.

“The crisis has shown that we are a good country and no one wants anyone to suffer,” she said.

“We need to put care and compassion at the centre of things and the next government has to find a way out and way up for people.”

Completing the survey will help peoples’ voices and experiences be heard and counted.

The infant feeding survey is available and will ask basic background questions — questions about what your baby or child is fed, and also about any problems you may be having with breastfeeding, formula feeding, and access to food during the coronavirus crisis.

O’Sullivan and Kennedy want as many people as possible in Ireland to complete the questionnaire so that they can understand what families need during any future emergencies.

To take part in the survey, visit https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/infant-child-feeding-Ireland

Hearing directly from caregivers will help us understand the types of support that would have made feeding their new baby easier, so we can learn from this crisis.

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