Preventing childhood obesity during infancy in UK primary care: a mixed-methods study of HCPs' knowledge, beliefs and practice

BMC Fam Pract. 2011 Jun 23;12:54. doi: 10.1186/1471-2296-12-54.


Background: There is a strong rationale for intervening in early childhood to prevent obesity. Over a quarter of infants gain weight more rapidly than desirable during the first six months of life putting them at greater risk of obesity in childhood. However, little is known about UK healthcare professionals' (HCPs) approach to primary prevention. This study explored obesity-related knowledge of UK HCPs and the beliefs and current practice of general practitioners (GPs) and practice nurses in relation to identifying infants at risk of developing childhood obesity.

Method: Survey of UK HCPs (GPs, practice nurses, health visitors, nursery, community and children's nurses). HCPs (n = 116) rated their confidence in providing infant feeding advice and completed the Obesity Risk Knowledge Scale (ORK-10).Semi-structured interviews with a sub-set of 12 GPs and 6 practice nurses were audio recorded, taped and transcribed verbatim. Thematic analysis was applied using an interpretative, inductive approach.

Results: GPs were less confident about giving advice about infant feeding than health visitors (p = 0.001) and nursery nurses (p = 0.009) but more knowledgeable about the health risks of obesity (p < 0.001) than nurses (p = 0.009). HCPs who were consulted more often about feeding were less knowledgeable about the risks associated with obesity (r = -0.34, n = 114, p < 0.001). There was no relationship between HCPs' ratings of confidence in their advice and their knowledge of the obesity risk.Six main themes emerged from the interviews: 1) Attribution of childhood obesity to family environment, 2) Infant feeding advice as the health visitor's role, 3) Professional reliance on anecdotal or experiential knowledge about infant feeding, 4) Difficulties with recognition of, or lack of concern for, infants "at risk" of becoming obese, 5) Prioritising relationship with parent over best practice in infant feeding and 6) Lack of shared understanding for dealing with early years' obesity.

Conclusions: Intervention is needed to improve health visitors and nursery nurses' knowledge of obesity risk and GPs and practice nurses' capacity to identify and manage infants' at risk of developing childhood obesity. GPs value strategies that maintain relationships with vulnerable families and interventions to improve their advice-giving around infant feeding need to take account of this. Further research is needed to determine optimal ways of intervening with infants at risk of obesity in primary care.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Health Personnel*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / prevention & control*
  • Primary Health Care*
  • United Kingdom
  • Young Adult