How does this fit with my role?

Maternity, child and whānau health practioners have close, personal relationships with women, families and whānau in the early years and often find themselves in a position to talk about healthy lifestyle choices with their clients.


For some, supporting families with advice about nutrition is already a mandated part of their prescribed services schedule or professional development frameworks. But some may not be as confident in discussing or providing healthy lifestyle support.


As the evidence about the importance of nutrition and physical activity in pregnancy and the early years mounts, it is becoming more and more important for all maternity and child health professionals to include support for healthy lifestyle choices in their work.


Research by Growing Up in New Zealand in 2014 found the majority of pregnant women were not meeting the nutrition guidelines for healthy food groups.  The authors noted that the "high frequency of foods high in fat, sugar and salt is consistent with a lack of knowledge about the specific health benefits of a more nutritious diet during pregnancy."  However, 87% of women in the study avoided certain foods or drinks, showing that they are willing to make dietary changes to improve their own or their infant's health.  The authors concluded that more support and education is needed.

Science shows all environmental and lifestyle factors matter


Until now, the priority health topics health professionals have focused on have included smoking, violence, injury and infection, alcohol and drugs, mental health, infant sleeping, breastfeeding and food safety.


Now research shows us is that nutrition and physical activity have a significant impact on development and health. In particular, they can influence a child or a mother’s risk of developing non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and some cancers.  Nutrition can also help to regulate an infant's appetite and developing taste preferences.


What’s more, research has found that good or poor nutrition and physical activity can drive epigenetic changes that have lasting effects across the health of multiple generations of a family.


Taking steps to include support for nutrition and physical activity in your work puts you in a strong position to have meaningful well-rounded conversations about the effects of all types of lifestyle factors on health. 


Your support may even protect a mother, child and future generations of children from the risks of non-communicable diseases.

Swirling chromosomes form a blueprint in the womb.


Traditions and today


Many cultures accept that life-long health has its beginnings in a healthy conception, pregnancy and the infant years. Health professionals working with Māori and Pacific families for example, will find today’s scientific evidence resonates with traditional beliefs about the importance of pregnancy and a focus on maternal spiritual wellbeing and nourishment for the good health of the infant.

The traditional views of Te Ao Māori also tell us wāhine hāpu carry the blueprint of their ancestors and pass it onto their future children (whakapapa: who is now, is affected by who went before, and will affect who is to come).

Sharing how science reconfirms these traditional beliefs could help to support and inspire some women and families today. (For more information see Toi Tangata or TAHA). 


While cultural or religious practices around conception, pregnancy, breastfeeding and infant nutrition vary considerably, protecting the future health of our children is a common concern and the key principles behind today's healthy lifestyle and eating advice can fit with all cultures and traditional diets.


Many resources exist to help maternity and child health professionals understand cultural dietary practices in order to support women and families with healthy choices. The Healthy Start Workforce Project team can help put you in touch with organisations with expertise in different cultural eating practices.


Supporting an empowering, partnership approach


It is vital the emphasis on nutrition in the early years for the prevention of long-term diseases and ill health does not add to the many pressures on women, families and whānau. All researchers working in this area and the Healthy Start Workforce Project team are committed to this information being seen as a positive, powerful motivation for making healthy lifestyle choices.


Our project team is also committed to the partnership philosophies held by all New Zealand College of Midwives’ midwives and Plunket nurses in New Zealand which place women and families at the centre of decisions that fit with their world view.


The two professional development programmes offered by the Healthy Start Workforce Project work hand-in-hand to provide health practioners with the “why” this period matters so much to life-long health and the “how” to help clients make appropriate changes.


The evidence presented in our Healthy Start Education Programme gives participants up-to-date knowledge to share with families to provide positive motivation for making healthy choices, while our Healthy Conversation Skills training gives the tools to help clients make behaviour changes in an empowering way. The Healthy Conversation Skills approach recognises that simply giving information, particularly when framed as criticism, is not an effective way to encourage long-term behaviour change. Instead women and families must feel motivated and supported to take their own steps.


Find out more: