BABIES should have obesity checks from birth if Scotland is to make inroads into one of the country's biggest health problems, it was claimed today.
A child health expert says the speed at which a baby gains weight in its first few months can determine whether it is at risk of obesity in later life.
Tam Fry, chairman of the Child Growth Foundation, said between one and four are the crucial years to check for signs a child could be at risk.
He says health visitors have a major role to play in the prevention of childhood obesity and has called for greater investment in primary care staff.
Babies should be weighed and measured against growth charts regularly before they reach their first birthday, he says – but most are not because of time constraints on health visitors and fewer staff.
One Glasgow mum says she has been trying to have her five-month-old baby weighed by health visitors but a drop-in clinic in Battlefield has been cancelled for the summer.
Scotland has one of the highest levels of child obesity in the Western world, with 22% of six-year-olds classed 'overweight'.
Mr Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, says Scotland is dealing with two epidemics, childhood obesity and maternal obesity, and says women should ideally aim to be a healthy weight before they conceive.
He has also called for high school pupils to be given lessons in parenting, including healthy eating classes.
Mr Fry said: "The most important year in a child's life is the first and it is the speed at which they put on weight that is a harbinger for the future. You can't just measure them at the end of the first year.
"Until Scotland has a surveillance system that will spot the early signs of unhealthy weight gain in pre-school then, in the opinion of the Child Growth Foundation and UK National Obesity Forum, it will never make inroads into one of its major health problems."
"I think Scots children are being seen in P1 and P3. What Scotland has to do is start to measure them at an earlier time.
"Between one and four are the really important years to check the first signs of obesity. If we have got 24% of our children obese at the age of four, that does not happen overnight.
"You have to catch them when they start putting on weight. You have to do it over a period of time.
"Health visitors are getting fewer and far between and not doing the checks they should be doing. It is written down on a piece of paper (for health visitors) but it doesn't get done.
"The problem is they are so busy and understaffed that children fall through the net.
"If you did a straw poll and spoke to 50 women with children, about 35 would say they have never had a measurement.
"It's not easy to tell parents their baby is fat. It's a delicate subject. It is only by educating the mothers that you will get a successful outcome."
Mr Fry says more should be done to explain the benefits of breast feeding, including that it is cost-effective and helps keep infants within a healthier weight range.
He said: "If the child is breastfed, it will dictate the rate of eating. If it is bottle fed, there is a tendency by mothers to want to finish the bottle – however if the child doesn't want it, will be getting more than it needs.
"There is also the problem of weaning babies too early. Glasgow is particularly bad for this. I have heard of children being weaned at 13 and 14 weeks."
"Babies are born with fat that keeps them warm. It is normal to put on weight in the first few months of life. However, they should be becoming progressively leaner as they get more active."
He believes high school pupils should be given parenting classes including classes on healthy eating.
He said: "50% will not be interested in the slightest, but if that other 50% listen, they have a chance of making a dent in the obesity figures."
A spokeswoman for NHS Greater Glasgow And Clyde said: "Our highly skilled health visitors already contribute to tackling obesity in children by identifying those children and families who would benefit from additional weight management support."
She said the Battlefield Health Clinic did not operate in July, but four alternative clinics were available for parents.