Now We Are Four report launched

The latest report from the University of Auckland’s Growing Up in New Zealand study shows a rise in obesity levels in the preschool children in the study, but a significant gap between parental perception of weight and the reality of their child’s weight according to international classifications of BMI.

“Now We Are Four: Describing the preschool years” was launched at today at a seminar in Wellington hosted by Superu and Growing Up in New Zealand. The report continues the “Now We Are” series of reports, building on the findings from the “Before We Are Born”, “Now We Are Born” and “Now We Are Two” reports. The report draws on a number of data collection waves which capture key transitions for the children between the ages of two and four years.

As well as weight, the report also flags an increase in the children’s screen time, and a rise in the consuming of soft drinks.

Growing Up in New Zealand study Director, Associate Professor Susan Morton says the report reveals increasing rates of overweight and obesity, with a total of 14 per cent of the cohort meeting the criteria for being overweight or obese, reflecting what is seen across New Zealand’s child population overall.

“The burden of overweight is not evenly spread across all ethnic groups,” says Dr Morton. “However many parents do not see bodyweight as a problem for their own child.”

For those children who were overweight or obese, the majority of 73 per cent were perceived by their mother to be of normal weight. In addition, approximately 10 per cent of the children who were of normal weight were perceived by their mother to be underweight.

Weight and obesity were also linked to screen time and diet. Approximately four out of five cohort children were regular media users, with the average time “on screen” for four-year-olds being just greater than two hours per day. Children who were overweight or obese engaged in more screen time than children of normal weight.

Children who were overweight or obese drank soft drinks more regularly (69 per cent) than children who were underweight or of normal weight (56 per cent).

However, Professor Morton says that at age four the children were generally happy, healthy and living in caring supportive families.

“At this age, almost all the children were attending some form of early childhood education and most mothers felt their child was well prepared to enter primary schooling. We were concerned, however, to see that the freely available Before School Check (which helps to assess children’s readiness for school) had not reached some of the most vulnerable children at the time of the data collection.

“We also see changes for mothers around this time. When the children were four, two-thirds of mothers were in paid employment compared with around half of mothers when the children were two.”

The report highlights a number of other changes that have occurred for children and families between the ages of two and four years across the domains of health and wellbeing, social and emotional development, family and whānau, education, housing, and income and material hardship.

“Residential mobility has again been a factor in the lives of more than half the children,” says Dr Morton. “However this mobility does not reflect a change in tenure. Approximately half the families are living as tenants in predominantly private rental properties.

“Household crowding also remains common, with many cohort children sleeping in shared beds and bedrooms. This practice is most apparent among Pacific and Asian families, however, the extent to which this reflects choice or necessity is not yet clear.”

“Examining the four-year-old information alongside that collected during the first 1000 days we see significant changes in individual measures of child behaviour. This flux at the individual level has implications both for identifying at-risk children and for understanding what works to help to move individual children out of problem behaviour categories.”

Among other findings, “Now We Are Four” reports that fewer children were living in an extended family household at four than at two years of age.

This reflects an increase in single-parent households, with a greater proportion of Māori children living in single-parent households compared with other ethnic groups.

In addition, one in five mothers experiences depressive symptoms during or since pregnancy.

Complex social issues need good-quality evidence and decision-makers need to know what works. This research helps increase the use of evidence by people across the social sector to inform better decisions.

The Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study provides a contemporary, population-relevant picture of what it is like to be a child growing up in 21st century New Zealand.

Growing Up in New Zealand is University of Auckland-led research funded by the Crown. Since 2013, Superu has managed the contract for Crown funding for the Growing Up in New Zealand study and data collection.