Three quarters of babies consume too much energy, finds UK survey

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 15 March 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1740
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. 1London

Three quarters of babies and young children in the United Kingdom are consuming more energy than they need, warn results from the first national survey to comprehensively assess infant nutrition.1

The Diet and Nutrition Survey of Infants and Young Children also showed that a fifth of babies are never breast fed and that fewer than half of those who are breast fed receive breast milk beyond 3 months of age.

Researchers collected dietary and nutritional information on 2683 children aged 4-18 months between January and August 2011. The children were sampled from child benefit records to give a representative sample of the UK population. The researchers assessed their nutrition by interviewing parents, through four day dietary diaries, and from blood samples and estimating breast milk intake, fluid intake, and body composition.

Results showed that 75% of boys and 76% of girls consumed more than their estimated average energy needs. The proportion exceeding the average increased with age, from 52-59% of children aged 4-6 months up to 88% in those aged 12-18 months, which the researchers said pointed to a contribution from complementary foods (foods other than milk).

Infant formula was the largest contributor to the energy intake of children aged under 12 months. And nearly a third (32%) of children aged 4-6 months were being fed follow-on formula, which should not be given before 6 months of age.

The survey found that many babies were given complementary foods (most commonly baby rice) before this age. One in 10 babies had been given solid foods by 3 months of age; an additional 32% started on solid foods at 4 and 5 months; and 22% started at 6 months.

Commenting on the report, Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, said, “These findings underline, yet again, how there is a fundamental mismatch between current food supply, human physiology, and the conditions in which we live today. As the evidence continues to pile up, what worries me most is that policy makers have quietly retreated from this terrain.”

Lang said that efforts in the early 2000s to achieve a system change approach to preventing obesity had been “swept away in the rush to hand over change to the food industry, in the guise of the ‘responsibility deals.’”

The Department of Health for England recommends exclusive breast feeding for the first six months or so of a child’s life. But the survey found that 22% of children had never been breast fed. And of the babies who were breast fed 57% were not breast fed beyond 3 months of age.

The new figures were similar to the findings of the infant feeding survey in 2010,2 which found that 76% of babies were being breast fed initially, meaning that the United Kingdom continues to have among the lowest rates of breast feeding in Europe.

Patti Rundall, policy director of Baby Milk Action, a non-profit organisation that works to improve feeding of infants and young children, said, “More needs to be done to encourage breast feeding. Clearly, women are not receiving the right support.”

She added, “The low breastfeeding rates—and particularly the quick fall off in breast feeding—are due, in part, to the failure of successive governments to regulate the marketing practices of the baby food industry.”

Rundall is particularly concerned about companies targeting pregnant women and new mothers to join baby clubs that send them information, including promotions for infant formula. She is also concerned about the growth in advertising and promotion of follow-on formula and “good night” milks (described as “night-time” feeds that help babies sleep well) designed for older children, since the advertising of infant formula is no longer allowed in the UK.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1740