Mothers' poor eating puts babies at risk

Poverty survey: Charities say lack of proper nutrition among pregnant women on benefits linked to higher illness in children
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A healthy balanced diet is off the menu for the majority of pregnant women living on benefits - putting their unborn babies' health at risk, according to a new report.

The study, by NCH Action for Children and the Maternity Alliance, says the cost of an adequate diet is "virtually impossible" for many women to afford, especially mothers-to-be aged 16 and 17 who are not eligible for full benefits.

The report, Poor Expectations - Poverty and Undernourishment in Pregnancy, also revealed that 33 per cent of pregnant women on income support were falling below "seriously deficient" levels in essential nutrients.

Poor nutrition in pregnancy is linked to low birthweight (under 2,500g or 5lb 8oz) which is the single most important cause of infant mortality.

Meanwhile, a second study published today shows that severe vitamin deficiency is putting homeless people at risk of scurvy and other diseases.

A survey of 400 by the charity Crisis found that they were only receiving one-fifth of the recommended intake of vitamin A and less than two-thirds of the daily dose of vitamin C.

The NCH survey of 120 women estimated that the average cost of eating a realistic and nutritious diet of the kind recommended during pregnancy was pounds 18.12 a week - almost half the income of a single 24-year-old on benefits and 65 per cent of the income of a single woman aged 16 to 17.

Nearly all those surveyed were eating a poor diet and 76 per cent regularly missed meals. A survey of their diet during the previous 24 hours showed that 43 per cent had eaten no vegetables apart from potatoes and 75 per cent had had no fruit.At the same time nearly 80 per cent had consumed sugar-rich foods or drinks and nearly 90 per cent had eaten fatty snacks.

Low birthweight babies are more likely to fall ill and to suffer from disabilities such as cerebral palsy, blindness or deafness. Poor language development, low IQ and behavioural problems have all been linked to low birthweight.

Seven per cent of babies born in the UK still have a low birthweight compared with 4 per cent in most EU nations.

In a Scottish study, one in four low birthweight babies suffered disability. Thirty per cent of very low birthweight babies (1,750g) did not survive past five years old, while 16 per cent of the remainder had cerebral palsy or blindness.

Tom White, chief executive of NCH Action for Children, said: "The difficulties faced by pregnant women in eating a healthy balanced diet aren't the result of a lack of knowledge but of poor material circumstances and low incomes."

The charities are calling on the DSS to introduce a premium to be paid from the time pregnancy is confirmed to ensure nutritional requirements of can be met.

8 Poor Expectations, Poverty and Undernourishment in Pregnancy, NCH Action, 85 Highbury Park, London N5 1UD; pounds 5.