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New RGU research explores cost of living pressures and maternal and infant food insecurity

By Kyle Ritchie

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A new research study to explore how cost of living pressures are affecting parent or carer and infant food insecurity across the UK is launched this week.

In the first study of its kind in the country, researchers – led by Professor of Public Health, Flora Douglas from Robert Gordon University – will interview parents and carers, living in Scotland and England, who have had or are currently caring for babies 0-6 six months and under, during the period January 2022 till April 2024.

The study aims to find out how cost of living pressures are impacting household food budgets and infant feeding decisions.

This life stage is when, according to UNICEF recommendations and guidelines, infants should be exclusively breast fed.

The new research study will examine how cost of living pressures are impacting household food budgets and infant feeding decisions.
The new research study will examine how cost of living pressures are impacting household food budgets and infant feeding decisions.

However, the cost-of-living crisis is making it even more difficult for parents to feed their babies the way they would like to.

Recent reports indicate that further deepening poverty levels in the UK, are making it more hard for many people to meet their basic needs such as food, warmth and shelter.

Professor Flora Douglas said: “Much has been done to track household food insecurity experience in the UK in recent years, and to secure the Right to Food for children in Scotland and the UK through policy development, but there is a gap in our understanding as far as babies and their parents and carers, as feeders of babies, is concerned.

“In the midst the current cost of living crisis, there is an urgent need to understand what is happening in relation to food access for parents, carers and their very young infants who rely on either breast milk or infant formula for life, at this crucial early life stage, in the UK.

"By comparison in a comparable high-income country, Canadian research, has found that low-income mothers are struggling to meet breast feeding recommendations due to poverty.

“The most recent First Steps Nutrition report also highlighted that the cost of infant formula has grown exponentially in the last 18 months which is deeply concerning from a public health perspective, given that many UK families will rely on infant formula to feed their babies during the first six months of life at some point.

"There is also evidence that some families are struggling to attain formula through non-commercial means.”

“We are aware of just how challenging it may be for many parents and caregivers to talk about their experiences of feeding their baby and that they may be worried about being exposed to judgment from others.

"We want to hopefully reassure potential participants that we are carrying out this research with the aim of developing an understanding about how difficult it is to raise and feed a baby during the cost of living crisis.

"We would also like to reassure those thinking about taking part that all discussions will be confidential.”

Kirsty McKechnie, representing Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) said: “All children need the best start in life and it is vital that parents and carers have an adequate income to provide that.

"CPAG is happy to be supporting this important research from Robert Gordon University into the impact of the cost of living crisis on feeding babies in their first six months.”

Sabine Goodwin Independent Food Aid Network director said: "The cost of living crisis is pushing yet more parents and carers unable to afford both food and infant formula to independent food banks.

"It's vital that we track how food insecurity impacts on the critical first six months of babies' lives and understand the effectiveness of existing pathways to support.”

Dr Lesley Frank, research chair in food, health and social justice at Acadia University in Canada stresses the importance of the project at a time of growing and deepening food insecurity for families across high income nations.

She said: “It is incredibly important to hear directly from those feeling the pressures of the cost of living in the UK in order to build adequate local systems of support to ensure that families and their babies have access to the food they need.”

The outcomes of this research will be used to inform politicians, policy makers and key stakeholders at a local and national level, including the food industry, third sector organisations, and health and social care professionals, on how best to support food insecure parents and babies at this critical time.

Ultimately, the research will contribute to future decision making that aims to improve public health, particularly for those in disadvantaged communities who suffer the largest burden of ill health in the UK.

The study will run until September 2024 and will contribute to the Diet and Health Inequalities (DIO) Food Study as an extension of FIO Food research concerned with obesity and food insecurity.

This work is being undertaken by a university collaboration involving RGU, Leeds Beckett University, the University of Liverpool, University College London and led by Professor Alex of the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen.

This research was funded through the Transforming the UK Food System for Healthy People and a Healthy Environment SPF Programme, delivered by UKRI, in partnership with the Global Food Security Programme, BBSRC, ESRC, MRC, NERC, Defra, DHSC, OHID, Innovate UK and FSA.

There is also the support of an expert advisory group made up of parent group representatives, third sector organisations involved in poverty alleviation, and, the provision of emergency food aid, and health professional infant feeding expertise.

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