Our National Shame

Child Health


Written by Lucy Mullinger

As a first-world country, we are expected to have healthy children, living in happy homes and being offered great health services and as a whole, our children do tend to be offered a great range of services, in comparison to other western countries, however based on statistics, it is evident there are some things that we could improve upon.

According to UNICEF data, from a 2016 report, New Zealand was placed just below the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) level at 12 percent of children (under 18) living in poverty and eight per cent of adults. This is higher than many other western countries, such as the United Kingdom, which has poverty levels of just over nine per cent for both adults and children.

While we are situated in the centre of the graph when it comes to poverty levels in OECD countries, we are quite a lot higher up when it comes to child abuse, New Zealand has the fifth worst record out of 31 countries. But rather than focussing on the negative aspects, it is worth looking at interesting ways that other countries are keeping their children healthy and how they are going about it.

When looking at data for child health across OECD countries, Scandinavian and Northern European countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands continue to top the board when it comes to high levels of child health and wellness. While they seem to remain in the middle of the board when it comes to average income per child (with Swedish families earning similar amounts to the average New Zealand family), they seem to continue achieving higher levels of child health statistics, while more affluent countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States continue to remain near the bottom of the graph. So, if access to money doesn’t make a difference when it comes to child health, what does?

In Sweden, for instance, the reason could hark back to the 1930s it was becoming evident that the birth rate was very low, thanks to the great depression. It was calculated that if this continued, Sweden would eventually decrease substantially in population. In answer to this, a socialist and politician, Alva Myrdal published a book called Crisis in the Population Question, along with her husband Gunnar Myrdal.

As a mother of three herself, Alva knew that the tribal community spirit no longer existed and it was incredibly important that parents had access to childcare. She therefore proposed paid parental leave, daycare options, financial support and universal child health services, as well as collective houses, where communal kitchens and childcare facilities were available to provide assistance to families who worked.

Around the same time, new parents in Finland began to receive care packages from the state to assist them with their newborn babies. This was offered to every family, no matter their status, and meant that babies would be given a fair and equal start in life. The boxes (that double as a bassinet) are filled with necessities such as clothes, nappies, bedding, bibs and a first-aid kit.

Norway, interestingly also has one of the lowest infant-mortality rates in the world. Countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece generally have stronger family bonds than western countries. With many family members living in communal situations, taking the stress out of rearing children alone.

While New Zealand children begin school when they are five or six and children attend school for seven hours a day, five days a week; many European countries don’t offer formal academics to children until they are older. With Finnish children attending school when they are seven and enjoying frequent breaks for outdoor time as well as shorter hours for learning each day.

When it comes to bringing up babies, there is also a marked difference in child rearing across the world. While we are more likely to put our children in a cot and pay for monitors to keep our children safe, there are many other countries that are believe in keeping children close by, with many European, Asian and African parents choosing to co-sleep with their children and keep their babies attached to them at all times. In fact, some countries, such as Bali, it is believed that a child should not touch the floor until they are three months, as they are still close to the sacred realm from which they came and therefore deserve to be treated with veneration. African children also are well known for not ever crying because they are offered breast milk for any problem they might encounter.

Meanwhile, in many Scandinavian countries, where the weather can reach freezing levels, parents believe it is healthy to leave their babies in strollers outside in the fresh air, while the parents go about their routines at home or in the shops. The babies are obviously snuggled up and often sleep, oblivious to their surroundings. This tradition has been held for generations, and many people claim it trains the babies to find the cold rejuvenating. What started as a health initiative when the tuberculosis epidemic hit the nation in the early 20th century, is now done more for the babies comfort, rather than protection. Icelandic parents say that sleeping outside keeps the babies from being bothered by the noise inside and allows them to sleep longer and more peacefully.

And, if you are travelling to countries such as Italy or Spain, it might surprise you to find children of all ages playing outside until as late as midnight, while their parents socialise with the neighbours. While this is not something you would often find in a Western Country, it is felt as a great way for families to bond after the stressors of school and work throughout the day.

And, when it comes to potty training, many parents overseas are getting their children trained a lot earlier, with many babies not even wearing nappies and parents taking a proactive approach with many babies and toddlers wearing split pants in countries like China, and children as young as nine months, learning how to use the potty on command. What is known as ‘elimination communication’ begins as soon as children can hold their heads up and includes the parent holding the baby over the potty and whistling or calling out something to get the baby to perform on call.

Around the world, there are also varying amounts of parental leave arrangements available with employees in Canada entitled to up to 37 weeks of parental leave and Norway offers 35 weeks of full pay or 45 weeks of 80 per cent pay for mothers with fathers offered 10 weeks, depending on the salary of their partners.

While child care is important, the health and wellbeing of the main carer is also worth looking into as a child can not get the support it needs if the parent or guardian is suffering. In many Latin American and European countries, mothers are given a periods of time where they are expected to recuperate from birth and their relatives take over household responsibilities such as cooking and cleaning, so that the mother can focus on the baby. In Latin America a new mother will wrap her belly in a sash and stay in her room with her baby for over a month.

Whatever your feelings are about child-rearing, it is evident that many of the countries that adopt close ties with their community and communal living arrangements with other family members and friends, seem to also enjoy lower levels of child abuse and health problems. This possibly harks back to the beginning when we lived in a more tribal system where mothers could share the responsibilities of feeding and caring for the babies in the tribe and families could bond more effectively. Unfortunately, with the world changing substantially and both parents needing to earn a living, the family model also differs significantly and so has the family dynamic.

However we choose to bring up our child, the fact remains that we live in a country where the mild weather patterns and closeness to nature are definitely high points when it comes to living a happy and healthy childhood. Meanwhile, adopting traditions from across the globe can also help in enhancing our existing model and, most importantly, assisting families that are struggling to keep their children in a safe and comforting environment as much as possible.

Maybe an answer to our high levels of child abuse and health issues, could be as simple as opening up our communities to struggling parents and offering even more services such as Scandinavia’s communal kitchens or traditions where mothers are expected to rest for over a month, and if all else fails, bringing around a plate of dinner for that exhausted family around the corner, could be a good starting point.


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