This website is now part of Public Health Scotland. Publications released after 16 March 2020 are now published on the Public Health Scotland website.
Improving health
Previously NHS Health Scotland

Children’s early life experiences and the social circumstances in which they live strongly influence their outcomes in later life. In general the poorer a child's circumstances are, or the fewer social opportunities they have, the worse their health.

Here you can find information on national policies and data around supporting children’s wellbeing.

  • 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.
  • 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 website).

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 family environment in which they grow up.

You can read more about this in our adverse childhood experiences (ACES) section. 

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. 

National actions

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.

You can read more about poverty in childhood on our Child Poverty page.

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.

Free School Meals

In January 2015 the Scottish Government introduced universal free school meals (UFSM) 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. You can find more information about the evaluation on our universal free school meals pages.


Childsmile is a national programme designed to improve the oral health of children in Scotland and reduce inequalities both in dental health and access to dental services. The Childsmile website has information for parents and carers as well as health professionals. 

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

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