Thousands of young children are not being taught to chew or swallow solid food at the right age, leading to serious diet deficiencies endangering their long-term health, doctors said yesterday.

Thousands of young children are not being taught to chew or swallow solid food at the right age, leading to serious diet deficiencies endangering their long-term health, doctors said yesterday.

Experts told a conference on child nutrition there had been a worrying rise in the number under the age of three suffering from anaemia and rickets because they were being fed convenience foods rather than a proper balanced diet. Doctors are starting to see scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C.

The latest figures show 12 per cent of young children are suffering from anaemia caused by iron deficiency, with this rising to 45 per cent of inner-city children. Childhood anaemia has been linked to poor mental and physical development.

The number of cases of children with rickets, caused by a lack of vitamin D, has also increased, the doctors said. If the condition is not corrected while children are still growing they can develop skeletal deformities and short stature, which can be permanent.

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey showed the average intake of vitamin D from food sources for children aged under four was only 18 per cent of the recommended level.

Children were being fed on milk, squashes and juices without proper solid food because they were not weaned on to solid foods at the right time, said Dr Roger Harris, senior lecturer in Child Health at the Royal London Hospital.

"The optimum time is four to six months, which is the window for taste and teaching them how to chew and swallow food. This window is being missed by many parents, leading to problems with feeding later on and a reliance on bland foods," he said. "We have had to set up swallowing clinics at the hospital to teach children how to chew and swallow because their parents aren't doing it."

Dr Harris believes part of the problem lies with parents relying on convenience foods and not having family meal times to teach children how to eat.

"Children are missing out on socialisation at meal times. These children are not underweight because they are living on a high volume of milk and fat," he said.

In Britain, cow's milk is recommended for babies from the age of one year. Dr Harris said that was reasonable for children adequately weaned and eating a good range of foods, although an undue dependence on milk as the main source of nutrition after the age of one led to serious deficiencies.

Dr Anita MacDonald, head of dietetic services at Birmingham Children's Hospital, said: "This is a time of growing individuality in children, when their personality and temperament is developed. Factors impeding good nutrition are faddiness, food refusal, poor mealtime routine, and laziness in chewing, giving rise to a preference for drinks rather than food.

"We often face parents who are very anxious about feeding. These are very intelligent parents who know what to do but find it difficult," she said, adding that one in four children nation-ally had problems in feeding properly.

* People with high levels of vitamin C in their blood greatly reduce the risk of having a stroke, scientists said yesterday in the October issue of Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association. Previous studies have associated higher intake of fruit, vegetables and other foods rich in vitamin C and potassium with lower stroke rates.

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