Children’s early life experiences and the social circumstances in which they live strongly influence their outcomes in later life. In general the poorer children’s circumstances are, or the lower their family is in the social hierarchy, the worse their health.

You will find information below on national policies and data around supporting children’s wellbeing.

  • The highest levels of poverty in Scotland are found in families with young children.
  • Children living in the most deprived areas of Scotland experience significantly worse health outcomes than children living in the least deprived areas and are more likely to experience
    • lower birthweight
    • poorer dental health
    • higher obesity levels
    • higher rates of teenage pregnancy.
  • More than one in five (220,000) of Scotland’s children are officially recognised as living in poverty.
  • Family adversity remains firmly linked to poorer health outcomes. Children living in families facing greater adversity are more likely to exhibit poor health behaviours.
  • Socio-economic deprivation has a clear relationship with mental health problems in childhood and adolescence. Children and adolescents from socio-economically disadvantaged families are three times more likely to develop mental health problems than peers from more affluent areas.

You can read more data on children’s health and wellbeing on the Scottish Public Health Observatory (ScotPHO) website (external).

Children and health inequalities

Despite the improving picture of childhood health, there remains significant inequality in children’s experience of the wider social determinants of health, resulting in long term and enduring health inequalities.

There are a number of ways in which exposure to family socio-economic status may impact on health during childhood and into adulthood. Health is influenced by the distribution of income, wealth and power within a society which are in turn influenced by the social, economic and political structures.

A child’s developing biological and psychological systems are influenced by the combined environmental, psychosocial and behavioural risk and protective factors to which they are exposed.

Environmental factors can be

  • access to and quality of goods and services
  • direct biological risks such as exposure to toxins, infections, allergens and carcinogens
  • the way children are parented and the and the family environment in which they grow up.

Examples of psychosocial factors are

  • levels of play
  • social networks
  • poverty and debt
  • early life stimulation
  • family connectedness.

Behavioural factors include

  • diet
  • smoking
  • parenting skills
  • physical activity
  • drug and alcohol use.

These risk and protective factors are not evenly distributed across society. The lower the family’s socio-economic status, the more likely it is for children to experience risk factors and for those risks to have a greater impact. They are also less likely to experience protective factors and for what protective factors they do experience to have less of an impact.

This means that children living in poverty are most at risk of the negative impact of the wider determinants of health. One in four (260,000) of Scotland’s children are officially recognised as living in poverty – defined as living in a household with less than 60% of median household income. 

10 people in icon form representing children and the accompanying text below reads “7 out of 10 children in relative poverty live in working households”. 7 of these icons are in a different colour to indicate this.

Seventy per cent of children in poverty are living in households where at least one person is working. These are the children most at risk of illness and early death in adulthood.

National action

Improving the health of children and addressing health inequalities calls for multiple actions across a number of public policy areas, including

  • poverty
  • housing
  • education
  • access to health services  
  • health related behaviours
  • influencing individual lifestyles
  • social and physical environments.

The national approach in Scotland to improving outcomes and supporting the wellbeing of children and young people is Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC).

Using a rights based approach, GIRFEC promotes partnership working between children, parents or carers and services.

You can find out more about GIRFEC on the Scottish Government website.

Our Maternal and Early Years website supports practitioners working with children aged from 0 to 8. You will find

  • information about improving outcomes for all children and families
  • evidence about inequalities experienced by some children and families.

We also coordinate the Maternal and Early Years Network for practitioners working with children aged from 0 to 8 across health, local authority and the third sector. The network can help you keep up to date with information and evidence, find out about events and share practice. Membership is free.

You may also be interested in the Children and Young People’s Health support group (external website).

In January 2015 the Scottish Government introduced universal free school meals for all children in primary 1-3 years. We are leading the evaluation alongside colleagues from the Medical Research Council Social and Public Health Sciences Unit and the Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research and Policy. Visit our universal free school meals section for more information on the evaluation.

You can contact the Children, Young People and Families Team for more information about our work.