Professor Rebecca Golley has broadened the perspective with her research program, looking expansively at interrelated factors such as diet quality, sleep patterns, screen-time, physical activity – and particularly the role of caregivers to help prevent obesity.
“If we look at where children live, learn and play, it becomes clear that the role of parents and care givers is critical to children’s wellbeing,” says Professor Golley, who is Deputy Director of the Flinders University Caring Futures Institute.
“We need to be providing caregivers with the knowledge, skills and confidence to make informed decisions that foster a child’s wellbeing.”
Professor Golley’s research teams are creating nutrition and lifestyle programs that aim to reach parents and caregivers across multiple access points – including child care, playgroups and schools. “Parents are a child’s first teacher, but it gets harder for them as we lose the traditional village model of living and fragmented families live further apart.”
This has been amplified in the COVID-19 era, with isolation and interrupted routines exacerbating the difficulties. “As we lose the connections of village-style networks, we’ve noticed that traditional support systems have gone missing. We need to improve the foods provided to children – so the concept of creating a virtual village, accessed through multiple means, including online delivery, becomes an important way to reach caregivers and help children be curious and adventurous in their eating.”
To link all the disparate components necessary to raise healthy children, it has been crucial for Professor Golley and her colleagues to reach far beyond a dietary focus to also encompass exercise physiology, nursing and midwifery, health psychology, sociology and knowledge translation science.
Such cross-disciplinary collaboration underlines the importance of the Caring Futures Institute, which was established at Flinders University in August 2019. By bringing together diverse research teams, the Institute has attracted $17.4 million in funding during 2020 and is supporting several important research programs, including those led by Professor Golley.
With an estimated 95% of Australian children aged between two and six years not eating adequate amounts of vegetables, the creation of VegKIT provides a suite of tools and resources to help increase children’s vegetable consumption. The five-year $4 million project involving the CSIRO, Flinders University and Nutrition Australia (Victoria Division) has been trialled at childcare centres in the past year, with impressive results.
Flinders researchers have also enjoyed success with the Early Prevention of Obesity in Childhood (EPOCH) Centre for Research Excellence, which has developed a suite of tools that take less than five minutes to measure or screen a range of healthy lifestyle behaviours including diet quality from as early as six months of age.
Traditional routine childhood checks record weight and height according to growth percentiles, but that system does not provide any actions on how to change situations. A new behaviour-focused screening tool may help healthcare workers formalise what can be said to caregivers during child check-ups to discuss weight concerns.